Saturday, June 21, 2014

Where the Lilies Bloom (1974)

          Representing a rare theatrical effort by prolific TV writer Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of the wholesome TV series The Waltons (1971-1981), this gentle family drama concerns four children who struggle to preserve their tenuous lifestyle in the Great Smokey Mountains after becoming orphans. While the picture suffers from problems that bedevil many family films, such as contrived comic-relief sequences and a kid-gloves approach to interpersonal conflict, the movie benefits from rich atmosphere and unquestionable sincerity. Shot on location and infused with local color (Carolina schoolchildren served as extras), the movie builds on strengths including Urs Furrer’s painterly cinematography and the persuasive rhythms of Hamner’s dialogue. (In voiceover, the 14-year-old protagonist laments that stress has transformed her into a “pinched-faced crone,” then observes that “something had flown out of my brothers and sisters” after a tragedy.) In its best moments, Where the Lilies Bloom—which was based on a novel by Bill and Vera Cleaver—approaches the sort of poetic Americana that permeates good country songs. The pleasures of the film are small, to be sure, but they feel genuine.
          When Where the Lilies Bloom begins, middle-aged widower Roy Luther (Rance Howard) tries to provide for his four children even though he’s rapidly dying from a respiratory ailment. Sensing the end is near, Roy Luther entrusts his second-oldest daughter, Mary Call (Julie Gholson), with taking charge of the family. Roy Luther’s oldest child, Devola (Jan Smithers), is deemed inappropriate for the job because she’s a daydreamer and because she has romantic designs on Roy Luther’s mortal enemy, Kiser Pease (Harry Dean Stanton). A redneck schemer whose family is closer to middle class than Roy Luther’s dirt-poor clan, Kiser seized ownership of Roy Luther’s land by paying back taxes. Worse, he wants to marry the pretty Devola. But since Roy Luther forbids that from happening, Mary Call feels obligated to block the union even after Roy Luther’s death.
          The middle of the picture, during which the family tries to hide the fact of their father’s passing from prying neighbors, covers fairly standard family-movie terrain. Similarly, comedic sequences involving a runaway car and the use of cooked onions as a cure for pneumonia lose their novelty quickly. Nonetheless, endearing performances and the dense textures of the location photography offer ample compensation. Gholson is believably tough and vulnerable, anchoring the film well, and Stanton makes a strong opposite number as a varmint who slowly reveals aspects of decency. And if Smithers (who later found fame on WKRP in Cincinnati) doesn’t make much of an impression, she’s cast effectively for physical type—as are Matthew Burill and Helen Harmon, who play Mary Call’s other siblings. (Howard, who plays Roy Luther, is the real-life father of actor-director Ron Howard.) Perhaps the strongest element of Where the Lilies Bloom is the heartfelt and unsentimental ending, which complicates the protagonist’s viewpoint in a meaningful fashion.

Where the Lilies Bloom: GROOVY

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