Shut-In Cinema: The Straight Story

I get it, most of you don’t think your kids are ready to handle David Lynch. He’s weird, he’s dark, he’s all sorts of messed up, and you also don’t know if the kids you’re cooped-up with have the wherewithal to handle Dune’s insanity quite yet. I know, I’m the only one that is insane enough to wonder if my niece is old enough to see Eraserhead (I know, she’s not), but admit it…you’re curious to see how they’d handle him.

Well guess what! He did a Disney movie!

The Straight Story tells the true tale of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), and older gent and veteran of WWII. He lives with his daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), who suffers from a learning disability. When he learns that his brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), has suffered a stroke he embarks on a journey across Wisconsin and Iowa to be with the man. The catch? He’s too physically impaired to have retained a driver’s license, forcing him to make the journey on his John Deer tractor. The film was nominated for the Palm d’Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and Farnsworth also received an Oscar nomination.

Okay, so is anyone just really weirded out by that premise? It’s almost too cute, a silly premise full of down-home characters and familial love. There’s some Lynchian stuff in here, don’t worry about that, but the whole thing is wrapped in a package that’s just a sweet, buttery delight. I first caught the film on the Disney Channel as a child and thought it was really nice. The idea is charming, the story is based on reality, and it’s full of wonderful performances. It’s just…cute.

Let’s not forget that this is David Lynch, and as such this contains some of his hallmark ideas about imagery and symbolism. At one point Alvin picks up a hitchhiker, a young woman that he deduces is pregnant and has run away from home. They build camp and he talks to her, quietly, about the importance of family and compares it to sticks. When sticks are on their own they snap quite easily, but as a bundle they are much stronger. In the morning the woman has vanished, leaving a bundle of sticks behind as a message that she heard him and has taken his meaning to heart. So much of the film contains moments like this, stunningly blunt and quiet instances of symbolism that are meant to evoke an unsettled-yet-cathartic reaction in a viewer. It’s a powerful use of his tricks in a family-friendly film and could (I hope) serve as a gateway drug to his other work when the kids get older.

Look, it’s just bizarre that he did this in the first place. Lynch has talked about this being his most experimental film (somehow) due to the fact that he shot it chronologically along the very route that Alvin Straight took. When it became a ringer at Cannes, Disney picked it up and released it worldwide. It was the final film starring Richard Farnsworth, who shot the entire thing while suffering from extremely painful metastatic prostate cancer. The crew was, apparently, absolutely blown away by how hard he worked under those circumstances and I honestly can’t tell watching the film that anything was wrong. It’s an amazing performance from a legendary actor, some of his best saved for last.

The Straight Story is currently streaming on Disney+.

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