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A gentle and usually mellow young man, who sometimes knows things before they happen and gets vibes of premonition, tell us his story: how he met Michelle in Iowa in 1971, how he got the name Fuckhead, how she introduced him to heroin and their falling in love, his thieving, his hospital work and their time in Chicago when she gets pregnant, detox, going to Phoenix to live, AA meetings and a dance, working at a care center where he learns to touch the residents, and modifying his daily schedule so that he passes a neighboring Mennonite household at the right time to hear the wife sing Gospel songs in the shower. Slowly, very slowly, FH lets his gifts emerge. Written by
Although it is far from perfect, "Jesus' Son" stands as a shining example of what is to be valued in independent filmmaking. It's impossible to imagine this film being produced in Hollywood. The subject matter is thorny, the form is innovative and most characters are ambiguous. In short, there's little here onto which a mass audience can grab. Yet, anyone choosing to pass this little film by will be missing something worthwhile.
"Jesus' Son", which takes its title from a Lou Reed song, expresses itself as a narrative memory. The film has the feel of random pages read out of someone's diary. It opens with a voice-over and we are immediately aware of an eccentric approach: the narrator has jumped the gun and needs to start over again. This sort of starting and re-starting may seem an affectation derived from the French 'new wave,' but it is handled so effectively that it succeeds in pulling the viewer into the film. Once officially on track, "Jesus' Son" moves from scene to scene with a method that seems wholly controlled by this main character/narrator, a young man known simply as F'head. We're never sure if he deserves this unflattering name, since his intentions are not always clear. F'head just seems to move through life, going where circumstances take him. Along the route, a wide variety of character types are encountered. Most leave F'head with something, and a few take something from him.
For individuals who are roughly contemporary with the characters in this film, there is much here that rings true. The time period-early 1970s-was a strange, directionless time for many in their early twenties. In fact, the film almost makes an unintentional case for the rampant drug abuse of the time: for so many, there was nothing else to do.
But the intention of Jesus' Son is not to excuse drug abuse, nor is to preach against it. Rather, the movie takes its hero on a rambling journey through the undersides and back alleys of life so that he may discover a single reason for staying alive. F'head seems a variant of the "wise fool" character, bringing about change in the lives of those he meets, yet seemingly unable to evaluate any of the events or relationships in his own life. Some viewers may see the hero guided by a higher power, of which he is himself unaware.
While the film's haphazard structure may be annoying to some, it admirably suits the time period and life-styles of the characters. There is a seeming discrepancy between several scenes. Some have a realistic, semi-documentary feel (when F'head first encounters Michelle), while others appear to be drawn from some bizarre cable-TV sitcom (the entire hospital orderly sequence, for instance). As in many independent films of recent years, there is much humor mixed with stark drama. The director, Alison Maclean, keeps a firm grip, maneuvering between wide-ranging emotional states. In the end, one is left with the feeling of having really experienced something. This is due not only to Maclean, but to the very fine cast.
Not surprisingly, Jesus' Son is dependent for its success on the portrayal of its central character. Billy Crudup, an actor who could easily be dismissed as a pretty boy, brings an almost palpable reality to every scene. He exhibits a total identification with the character and is able to project perfectly the inherent ambiguity that drives the entire story. Is F-Head putting everyone on? There are flashes of nearly poetic brilliance in his dialogue, mixed with befuddled inanity. He seems to live around his world, rather than within it; observing, but not always participating. Although one might wonder how someone with his lifestyle could have such perfect teeth, F'head as played by Crudup, is a beautiful, confused and confusing angel.
Other cast members are memorable as well. Samantha Morton, who made a huge impression in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, embodies the equally ambiguous persona of Michelle, who loves F'head, yet seeks to destroy herself. Dennis Leary effectively creates a man annihilated by his own life. The growing number of Jack Black fans will probably enjoy his over-the-top characterization, but to this viewer his George seems vaguely disturbing and threatening. Holly Hunter is the kind of performer who can bring a lot to a film with just a few lines. She plays a lovely crippled woman here with dignity and humor. Also excellent in their brief appearances are an understated Dennis Hopper and the vigorous Will Patton.
Typical of many period films dealing with young people , the soundtrack of "Jesus' Son" is loaded with contemporary popular songs. But the choices here seem carefully made. There is new material as well: a fine main theme written by Bob Dylan and the closing credits are supported by an absolutely superb song with a Woody Guthrie lyric, set to music and performed by Wilco.
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