Donna (Rebecca Lowman) has never had what you might call a close relationship with her mother, Eve, so it's a bit of a shock for Donna when her mother posthumously sends her on a mission. Eve has committed suicide in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, and she has some unfinished business for her oldest daughter to take care of for her: a laundry list of notes and knick-knacks that Donna is supposed to take on a road trip to deliver to their intended recipients. This begins Eve of Understanding, which recently won a Special Jury Prize at AFI Dallas.
Although she wasn't close to her mother, Donna feels obliged to respect Eve's last wishes, and so she embarks on her road trip solo ("Don't take your sister or your loser boyfriend," Eve admonishes in her note to Donna), hoping to discover along the way just why Eve sent her on this mission. She says good-bye to her oddball religious-nut sister Lisa (Jennifer Harlow), who apparently spends all her free time praying for people so as not to have to improve her own life, makes a narrow escape from the absuive loser boyfriend, and heads off on a solo road trip in which she will uncover secrets about Eve's past -- and her own -- all while deciding whether to make another stab at going sober.
Eve's list of errands take Donna on a journey to an assortment of motley characters: Travis (Tim Wrobel), the "nice" ex-boyfriend who dumped Donna as soon as she had sex with him; Donna's father, Joe (Henry Kana), an abusive drunk, Ruth (Kit Gwin), Eve's sister, the deeply religious mother of a huge brood of unnaturally neat and obedient Stepford children; and Vera (Susan Roberts), who may or may not have had more to do with Eve and Joe's divorce than she's letting on.
What is clear about Donna as the story unfolds is that she is one seriously messed-up young lady, and that her issues stem largely from her relationship (or lack thereof ) with her parents. We're never clearly given to understand ourselves the nature of Eve and Donna's relationship, beyond that Donna didn't get the love she needed from Eve and that Eve was never there for her. Donna's relationship with her father is only mildly less murky -- he clearly abused Donna, her sister Lisa and their brother Michael (Daniel Magill), but whether the abuse was physical, sexual, emotional or some combination thereof is never made entirely clear. What is clear is the impact of her childhood on Donna as an adult; she is a lost and lonely woman whose only sense of her own self-worth is her looks, which she makes the most of with midriff-baring t-shirts and dangerously short skirts. It's implied through both Donna's interactions with men and a revelation from Eve late in the film that there is a history of sexual abuse in Donna's past.
It's easy to look at a woman like Donna -- an alcoholic chain-smoker with a cheap, bad haircut, she dresses provocatively and has sex without seeming to see it as much more than a transaction -- and judge her for her behavior without looking beneath the surface. First-time director Alyson Shelton attempts with this film to explore the whys and wherefores of women like Donna by revealing bits and pieces of her past and her family history along the journey; like a lot of women, Donna deals with the baggage of childhood by hating and blaming herself, and the choices she makes in her life are punitive in that they keep her buried in bad situations. Shelton largely succeeds in what she's trying to get across, largely because Lowman's strong performance keeps us interested in Donna and what happens to her even in the film's weaker spots.
The film was shot on location in Austin and Katy, Texas and Sedona, Arizona, all settings rife with natural beauty (the scenes in Arizona are particularly lush), and Shelton makes good use of her locations with lots of shots of wide open skies and long, winding roads symbolic of Donna's journey. Eve of Understanding takes us along on Donna's road trip mission to fulfill her mother's last wishes and find herself in the process, and Lowman draws us into Donna's life, making us hope that, by the end of her trip, Donna will find another curve in the road that she'll follow away from her self-destructive path and into a new life.