It's probably not the easiest thing in the world to direct your first feature film when your dad is an icon like Clint Eastwood, but with her feature debut, Rails & Ties, helmer Alison Eastwood makes some smart decisions, most of which involve surrounding herself with people who know what they're doing. Although I never read other reviews of a film until I've written my own (and even try to avoid discussing them too much with other film journalists, which can be hard to do at a fest), I sometimes can't help but hear the buzz around a film, and the buzz around Telluride about Rails & Ties was mixed.

I decided to see the film myself for a couple reasons: First, I really love Marcia Gay Harden and Kevin Bacon, and second, because it's an unfortunate truth that people often love to see someone fail -- especially someone whose last name comes with a certain history, and whose first feature was accepted into both Telluride and Toronto. So it was only natural (or at least, it was expected) that people would speculate on whether Rails & Ties got into both fests on the strength of its director's surname, rather than its own merits. I don't like basing my opinions on other people either lauding or tossing the proverbial rotten tomatoes at a film, though, so I went into Rails & Ties to see it for myself.
The film has two storylines which intersect unexpectedly, causing a collision between two families that will leave everyone involved changed irrevocably. Tom (Kevin Bacon) is a railroad engineer whose whole life revolves around trains: He drives trains for a living, he has an impressive model train in his garage that he works on in his spare time, and he uses his schedule as an engineer as a shield of sorts, to wall himself off emotionally from everything except the predictable routine of running the trains. This works pretty well for Tom, until his life runs up against two unpredictable things simultaneously. His wife, Megan (Marcia Gay Harden), has breast cancer, which had previously gone into remission twice, but has now come back with a vengeance, metastisizing into her bones; Megan, at the age of 42, suddenly has only a short time left to live, and the clock is running out for her to do all the things she always thought there would be time to do.

At the same time, a deeply depressed woman decides to commit suicide by driving her car onto the tracks -- in front of the train Tom is driving, making him an unwilling executioner. At the speed his train is traveling, he has only seconds to make a decision: Follow the book and slow the train down manually as much as possible before impact, or hit the emergency brake to try and stop the train, risking derailing it and possibly hurting or killing the hundreds of passengers who didn't choose to park their car in front of an oncoming train. Tom follows the book, the woman is killed, and her 11-year-old son, Davey (Miles Heizer, turning in a nice performance in his first feature role), who she'd intended to kill along with herself, manages to get out of the car and survive. Davey blames Tom for not stopping the train in time, and when he escapes from the foster home he's placed in, he goes looking for Tom. The presence of this lost child in the midst of their wrecked marriage helps Tom and Megan heal, even as her life is coming to an end.

There are certain hard truths about movies, and one of them is that anytime you have a lead character dying of something, you risk stepping across that invisible line into "Lifetime Movie of the Week" territory, no matter how hard you try to avoid being overly sentimental or sappy. Even if you are completely unsentimental in handling it, someone is going to label your film sentimental anyhow. The best you can do is be as honest as you can with the material, hire actors who can do death in an understated way, and try to avoid being too heavy with the emotional manipulation. Eastwood does a decent job of walking this line, and she's helped a lot by having actors of Bacon and Harden's caliber in the lead roles; the actors bring the weight of their collective talents to bear in creating a believable marriage between two people struggling with the hourglass running out of sand.

Case in point: There's a nice scene in the film where Megan and Tom are in their car following a visit to an alternative cancer therapy center. Megan went to the center at Tom's behest -- she's made it a bit further down the "inevitable death" track than he has at that point -- and on the way home, long-simmering resentments start bubbling to the surface. "Why didn't we have kids?" she asks him. That simple sentence, seemingly coming out of nowhere, but with all the anger of past conversations and blame simmering underneath, is the first volley in a back-and-forth of non-communication and frustration; the more angry and teary Megan gets, the more Tom folds up in himself.

Bacon reveals Tom's building tension here only through the tiniest tightening at the corners of the mouth, the slight tensioning at the shoulders, the distance in the eyes and face that belies a calm that's only on the surface. She keeps needling and crying, the tension in him grows, and then he explodes at her. A moment of quiet and then a few words from her -- "Oh, so it's my fault?" -- begins the cycle again. Anyone who's been in a long-term relationship will recognize the truth of this dynamic; long-held resentments come bubbling seemingly out of nowhere, the partners push each other's buttons in just the right way to get the reaction they want, and then you start the dance all over again.

It's these little details that keep Rails & Ties from being overly sentimental, and it's part of the plus side of Eastwood being smart enough to bring acting talent of this caliber aboard her first feature project. She also used experienced people to flesh out her crew: her brother Kyle Eastwood, who did the music for Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Flags of Our Fathers, wrote the score; her DP was Tom Stern, who did the cinematography for Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, et al; her editor, Gary Roach, edited Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, and Catwoman (okay, we'll forgive him that one). In short, Eastwood did what many of us would probably do, if we were making the scary leap from actress to director and trying not to be hung by the noose of a famous name: She was smart enough to realize that there's a lot she doesn't know yet, and to bring on board people who do know, and learn from them. And all that's fine, and I can understand why she made those choices, but it also makes it hard to know where Eastwood's vision starts and ends -- how much of the shot angles and lighting were her choices versus the DPs, how much of the editing she personally made the decisions on.

So, let's cut to the chase here. No, Rails & Ties is not likely to end up on a lot of critics' "Top Ten" lists at the end of the year, but neither is it the worst movie to come down the pike in the last few years (I think I'd have to give Deck the Halls that honor -- that movie was really bad, but while people acknowledged its badness, they didn't seem to overly gloat on kicking Matthew Broderick and Danny Devito in the gonads, either). Rails & Ties is what it is: a decent, safe film by a first-time feature director who found a script she liked, had a vision for it, and did her best to bring on board the people she needed to bring that vision to the screen. It has some solid performances from Marcia Gay Harden and Kevin Bacon, and will play decently enough as a "chick flick" -- women, especially in the 35-and-over demo, will probably like it quite a bit.

What I'm personally a lot more interested in is whether Eastwood, having gotten this first film out of her way, will grow in self-confidence enough to evolve into a really interesting director in the future -- how she might grow as a director, if she steps all the way out of the nest next time to make a really down-and-dirty indie film, if she breaks out of the safety net a bit, and really just gets out there on her own and brings her own vision to life on the screen? Eastwood's vision seems to be a little overshadowed by all the talent she surrounded herself with. She's gotten over the hurdle of making that first film; now, I want to see what she's really capable of doing.

Rails & Ties screens for the public at TIFF on September 14 and 15, before opening in limited release October 26.