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Film review: 'Desert Blue'

16 September 1998 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

A fractured, comic folly about life in roadside-attraction America, Morgan J. Freeman's "Desert Blue" is a rollicking, off-road venture that will tickle the sensibilities of independent film fans. Wonderfully loony and touching, it played to wildly enthusiastic acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Set smack-dab on the fringes of an eastern California town passed up by the interstate, it's a hilarious look at people who live outside the lines of power. In this case, Baxter (population 89) is, essentially, a ghost town gone belly up after the mines closed. Its dubious claim to fame is the world's tallest Ice Cream cone, erected to generate tourist business. Less well-known is that it's also home to Baxter Beach, the world's creakiest unfinished ocean park and the inspired dream of one of the town's late crackpots who figured if you have sand, it's ridiculous not to have a beach.

Into town wanders a professor of popular culture (John Heard) who has lugged his ungrateful, TV actress daughter (Kate Hudson) on a tour of U.S. back roads. The good, goofy professor chronicles American oddities, peculiarities of small-town boosterism -- burgs that build things such as huge thermometers and palaces made of corn to attract attention and economic interest.

Structurally, "Desert Blue" ambles out like an old-time western as the professor and his daughter encounter the coots and crazies who eke out a living in the tumble-down town. As soon as they get there, however, a trucker toting ingredients for a newfangled soda is killed in a highway accident. The authorities surmise that he was somehow poisoned by the contents of his load.

No sooner than you can say "bring in the outsiders," the FBI and EPA arrive in storm-trooper force and quarantine the town. This causes great consternation among the townsfolk: It will upset their daily routines of drinking, off-road biking and mucking about.

While the plot is not particularly remarkable, the storytelling and capture of locale and mind-set is cunningly brainy. Writer-director Freeman (who did "Hurricane Streets", which won the 1997 Sundance Audience Award) has wired together a most-peculiar pastiche of folks living on society's fringes.

The story line is wacky yet endearingly affecting, in part because of strong, offbeat performances from a cast led by Christina Ricci, who is hilarious as an angry young girl who gets her kicks from blowing things up. She's a virtual one-woman demolition derby. And Casey Affleck is a kick as a rowdy whose only dream is to defend his all-terrain vehicle racing championship.

Among more-normal characters, relatively speaking, Brendan Sexton III is sympathetic as a young man who bears a tremendous personal cross, while Hudson's tawny performance as a TV starlet is altogether appealing.

But its shady squint on life gives "Desert Blue" its sheen. Freeman has wired together a terrific slant on Americana; it's neither condescending nor judgmental. In fact, it's oddly inspiring.


Ignite Entertainment

A film by Morgan J. Freeman

Producers: Andrea Sperling, Nadia Leonelli,

Michael Burns

Screenwriter-director: Morgan J. Freeman

Executive producers: Leanna Creel,

Marc Butan, Kip Hagopian

Co-producers: Gill Holland, A. Carter Pottash

Director of photography: Enrique Chediak

Editor: Sabine Hoffman

Production designer: David Doernberg

Music: Vytas Nagisetty

Music supervisor: Tracy McNight

Sound designers: Margaret Crimmins,

Paul D. Hsu

Costume designer: Trish Summerville

Casting: Susan Shopmaker



Blue: Brendan Sexton III

Skye: Kate Hudson

Ely: Christina Ricci

Pete: Casey Affleck

Sandy: Sarah Gilbert

Lance: John Heard

Caroline: Lucina Jenney

Running time -- 92 minutes

No MPAA rating


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