The pleasures of Victor Nunez’s rural saga Gal Young Un hide in plain sight. At first glance, the storyline might seem depressing and predictable, with a cocksure young hustler ingratiating himself to a wealthy older woman and then treating her like dirt once they’re married. Since the film is set in the Florida backwoods circa the 1920s, the hustler uses his bride’s resources to set up a thriving moonshine business, meaning that Gal Young Un traffics in familiar images related to bootlegging and stills. Yet that’s all flash—or as close to flash as this understated movie gets. Beyond the noise of the hustler’s boasting and lawbreaking hides the real heart of the story, which is the intimate character study of a woman responding to life’s indignities with pragmatism and resolve. Based on a short story by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, best known for her Pulitzer-winning novel The Yearling (1938), this film is part character study, part morality tale, and part proto-feminist crie de couer.
While bird-hunting one day in the forest, Trax (David Peck) and a buddy stumble across the cabin occupied by Mattie (Dana Preu), who is nearly twice Trax’s age. They exchange pleasantries, and soon afterward, Trax returns to mooch a meal off the warm and welcoming woman, who seems flattered by the attention of a younger man. Later, Trax happens upon information that Mattie is a widow sitting on the backwoods equivalent of a fortune. He woos her into marriage and starts his business, then spends more and more time away from home while enjoying newfound wealth. Meanwhile, Mattie remains stuck in the cabin, only now she has the added responsibility of overseeing Trax’s still and the disreputable goons he hires to operate the apparatus in his absence. A further insult to Mattie’s status occurs when Trax brings home a young mistress, Elly (J. Smith-Cameron), then leaves again, forcing the women to awkwardly cohabitate.
On one level, Gal Young Un is the cautionary tale of a man whose silver tongue allows him to reap rewards while avoiding consequences. On a deeper level, it’s the story of a complicated woman who trades loneliness for something different. Accordingly, the picture can be interpreted as a metaphor representing the compromises we all make. In his directing debut, Nunez—who also photographed and edited the movie—demonstrates the gentle humanism that defines his best-known films, including Ruby in Paradise (1993) and Ulee’s Gold (1997). Like those pictures, Gal Young Un is small and soft-spoken, because Nunez is more interested in describing people’s journeys than defining them. By stripping away the usual Hollywood storytelling devices, he fabricates unadorned reality, often letting his camera linger on ambiguous reaction shots that allow viewers to add meaning. Some might find this approach too benign, and, indeed, Gal Young Un is the sort of the picture that can lull the viewer into passivity. Yet for those willing to luxuriate in its handmade textures, right down to the occasionally lapses in camera focus, Gal Young Un is thoroughly compassionate and even, in an unexpected manner, rather sly.
Gal Young Un: GROOVY