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Down in the Valley

Genre-Mixing, Genre-Bending Drama/Western

Written and directed by David Jacobson (Dahmer, Criminal), Down in the Valley draws from the family drama, teen romance, and modern-day western genres to create a singularly compelling indie film. It succeeds on emotional and visceral levels primarily because Jacobson is intimately familiar with the conventions of each genre and the expectations audiences associate with each genre. Jacobson carefully sets up the premise, the characters, several layers of conflicts, and then takes Down in the Valley and his audience into unexpected territory.

The San Fernando Valley, California. Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a restless, rebellious teenager, first meets up with Harlan Fairfax Carruthers (Edward Norton), a gas station attendant/cowboy, as she and her friends stop at a local gas station on their way to the beach. Her friends treat the out-of-place Harlan to gentle and not-so-gentle ridicule, which he accepts with good humor. On impulse, Tobe invites the older Harlan to the beach. Harlan, it seems, has never gone to the beach. He accepts, losing his job in the process, excited by Tobe's physical beauty and her quick wit.

Tobe and Harlan begin a passionate, illicit relationship (Tobe is, after all, underage). Tobe's father, Wade (David Morse), a corrections officer, instantly disapproves of the relationship. Tobe's doting younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin), takes a more neutral, if no less wary, approach to Harlan's presence in their lives, but Harlan uses his talismans and Lonnie's loneliness (he doesn't seem to have friends of his own) to befriend him, turning Lonnie into an ally. For his part, Lonnie feels stifled by the overbearing Wade, who tends to ignore the self-esteem challenged Lonnie (Lonnie's 13, but looks 10 or 11).

As tensions escalate between Tobe and her father over her relationship with Harlan, Harlan becomes increasingly obsessive, forcing Tobe to choose between her stable, if dysfunctional, family life and Harlan's less stable, romanticized life as an itinerant cowboy. Harlan, however, isn't what he seems, or even if he is, a thick undercurrent of neurosis and desperation runs through his relationship with the younger Tobe, who seems unprepared for the turns in her relationship with Harlan. What Harlan has run away from and what he's become (and how he's reinvented himself, if indeed that's the case), lead into unexpected, ultimately poignant story turns away from ill-fated romance and into a modern-day western.

To say more would be to give too much away, as Down in the Valley is best seen with a minimum of foreknowledge. For viewers tired of the same old genres, the same old conventions, of finding every story turn predictable, Down in the Valley provides more than its share of expectation-subverting pleasures. While the film does have its share of narrative problems, they're mostly minor and certainly forgivable (pacing problems, overlong running time, an unfocused, repetitive climax, and an awkward denouement).

For some viewers, the potentially exploitative subject matter (e.g., teenage girl becoming involved with a thirty-something, possibly delusional drifter) will prove problematic. It's a fair point and for the first 30-40 minutes, it can be difficult to sit through, but Jacobson handles their relationship with delicacy and once Down in the Valley begins to subvert genre conventions, the focus switches from the romantic storyline to a meditation on a lost, lonely character who's desperately tried to reinvent himself into a romanticized ideal, but who fails due to a combination of personal flaws and external circumstances.

Without the right actor for the role, Down in the Valley could have sunk under the weight of Jacobson's ambitions. Luckily, that didn't happen here. Edward Norton, who stepped into the role of co-producer gives a characteristically restrained, grounded performance. It's his film, from start to finish, or rather Harlan's film, but the other actors acquit themselves almost as well, including Evan Rachel Wood, who handles her role with the range and subtlety of a more experienced actress and David Morse, a character actor who's rarely, if ever, given a "bad" performance (and this isn't one of them). Minus some pacing and length problems, moviegoers who place a premium on thought-provoking material, deep, nuanced characterizations, and genre-defying story turns should check out Down in the Valley.

Rating: 4 out 5 stars