A thoughtful drama adapted from country singer Bobby Gentry’s 1967 song of the same name, Ode to Billy Joe has a great first hour and a mess of a finale. So unfortunately, even though viewers are given a plausible explanation for why the song’s tragic protagonist, Billy Joe McAllister, jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge—the mystery that made Gentry’s song a pop-culture phenomenon—muddy storytelling dilutes a potentially powerful narrative.
Producer-director Max Baer and screenwriter Herman Raucher build their story around Bobbie Lee Hartley (Glynis O’Connor), a precocious teenager living in rural Mississippi circa 1960. Bobbie Lee is filled with curiosity about romance and sex, but her parents won’t let her date until she’s 16. Meanwhile, Bobbie Lee’s childhood friend, the slightly older Billy Joe McAllister (Robby Benson), is feeling hormonal surges of his own, so he courts Bobby Joe relentlessly while still respecting her boundaries.
The flirting scenes are filled with entertainingly ornate dialogue: “I think I’m either adopted or depraved,” O’Connor remarks at one point. “Of the two, I prefer depraved.” Even minor characters like Bobbie Lee’s mother get to deliver atmospheric lines: “Mosquitoes always did take to you on a thick evening,” Mom says. Baer, who played Jethro on the ’60s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, displays a sensitive feel for the rhythms of Southern life, so his storytelling thrives during quiet scenes and falters elsewhere.
Most problematically, Baer introduces a major plot twist without sufficient clarity, making the rest of the picture cryptic in a manner that’s out of step with what came before. This narrative derailment is a shame, because so many things in the movie are worth watching. O’Connor is terrific, a spitfire bristling against constricting social expectations, and Benson adds dark dimensions to his patented puppy-dog persona. Joan Hotchkis and Sandy McPeak are authentic and warm as Bobby Lee’s parents, with Hotchkis radiating maternal understanding and McPeak wearing male pride with dignity; rounding out the family, Terence Goodman is solid as Bobby Lee’s testosterone-crazed older brother.
Composer Michel Legrand provides a subtly effective score that evokes the arrangement of Gentry’s song for stylistic unity (half the song plays over the opening credits, setting up the story, and half plays at the end, tying up loose ends). On the visual front, cinematographer Michael Hugo makes the most of authentic locations like the decrepit span used for the Tallahatchie Bridge. Therefore, even with its flaws, Ode to Billy Joe is praiseworthy for its heady mixture of atmosphere, sensitivity, and tragedy.
Ode to Billy Joe: FUNKY