Ah, the road film. The formula is tried-and-true: usually two people, taking to the back roads of America in order to get somewhere by a certain time or for a particular reason. Along the way, cars break down, trains are jumped, and quirky characters are encountered. It can be funny, sweet, or darkly dramatic. But the formula rarely strays. Because of this, the key to a good road film is what happens during the journey. You want to see lessons learned, growth, and bonding. But you also want to see interesting characters and maybe a good car chase thrown in, too.
Tribeca seems to have at least one of these films every year. Last year it was Chasing 3000. This year, it's Tennessee, a slow-moving but sweet story of two brothers who go back home to find their abusive father; what they find, though is that there's more than one reason to go home.
The story is pretty straightforward: in 1993, after finally confronting his alcoholic, abusive father, Carter Armstrong (Adam Rothenberg) escapes from Tennessee to New Mexico with his mother and little brother Ellis. Fifteen years later, the mom is dead, Ellis (Ethan Peck) has leukemia, and Carter is not a bone marrow match. Ellis suggests that they go back to Tennessee to find their father for a possible marrow donation. Carter, who sacrificed a future as a college football star to protect his family, reluctantly agrees.
So they set off on the road in Carter's taxi. Along the way, Ellis befriends Krystal (Mariah Carey), a diner waitress who decides to join the brothers in order to escape her own abusive relationship, with state trooper Frank (Lance Reddick of The Wire). The usual spiritual journeys ensue, with Frank's relentless pursuit of his wife thrown in for good measure.
Watching Tennessee, one can tell that director Aaron Woodley is in love with the varying landscapes in these United States, as he takes loving wide shots of terrain ranging from the dessert of New Mexico to the lush green hills of Tennessee. It makes for a great backdrop for the story, which is low-key in every sense of the word. Even the menacing specter of Frank isn't played up any more than it needs to be. In essence, Woodley makes sure that the exploration of how people can overcome their pasts and redeem themselves is at the forefront of his film.
The performances are what's most notable about the movie. Rothenberg plays the booze-addled Carter with the right combination of self-pity, rage, and restraint. His Tennessee accent goes in and out, but otherwise, his performance is fine. Reddick is realistically scary as Frank. Peck, in his first film role, is remarkable as Ellis, stoic in the face of his illness, but with a sense of responsibility that his older brother never really had. And, if anyone was worried that Carey was going to overwhelm the picture with her star power, there was no need to worry; she properly eschews her glam persona to play Krystal, whose dreams have also been squashed by abuse. She even sports a passable Texas accent, which is no small feat for a girl from Long Island.
As you'd expect to see in most road movies, there are some leaps of faith that need to be made in order to ensure that the journey is completed. It's interesting that none of the stories end the way a person would expect, but sometimes those twists work and sometimes they don't. But those details shouldn't dissuade you from checking the movie out. Tennessee isn't action-packed, but it has a story that should keep you engaged from start to finish.