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It might sound like a backhanded compliment, but Downtown Owl feels more like a pilot than a feature film and may yet yield a series. In today’s market, that could work out just fine for directors Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe, who, after a choppy start, finesse Chuck Klosterman’s digressive 2007 novel into a thoughtful, broad-canvas ensemble piece. T Bone Burnett helps nail things down with an eclectic alt-country score and soundtrack, infused with the music and spirit of Elvis Costello, but it’s Rabe that holds it all together onscreen with a controlled yet still wildly uninhibited performance.
After a flashforward to a white-out blizzard in January 1984, the action winds back nine months to the summer of 1983, which is when English teacher Julia Rabia (Rabe) swaps urban Milwaukee for the backwater of Owl, North Dakota, to take up a post in a remote school on the recommendation of her father. “You will be popular here, Miss Rabia,” the realtor tells her. “Very, very popular.” Which absolutely proves to be the case, since “downtown” amounts to a stretch of road with just a diner, two gas stations and three bars, and any female newcomer is watched with hawk eyes.
There’s a cartoonish element to the opening, when Julia meets the headmaster, the coach and some of the kids, who speak their minds directly to camera, a conceit the film doubles down on with subtitles to reflect the disjunct between Julia’s inner monologue versus what she says out loud. The catalyst for what happens next is an encounter in the bathroom with fellow teacher Naomi (Vanessa Hudgens), who spells out the situation. “I don’t know what your life was like where you come from,” she says, “but you’re back in high school now, and everyone is looking at you through homecoming glasses.”
This pep talk gives Julia permission to go native, and she does so with gusto, drinking on school nights and weekends alike with Naomi, who claims to have a partner but always seems to be with her lover. Despite proposals from every man in the bar, Julia stays faithful to her long-distance fiancé — like her father, just a voice on the phone — until a tongue-tied, handsome bison farmer named Vince (Henry Goldman) catches her eye.
This emotional awakening is really the core of the film, but threaded through it are several storylines that bring Julia into contact with the locals: the retired farmer Horace (Ed Harris), who lives with his terminally ill wife; Mitch (August Rosenstein), the melancholy football player who prefers to shoot hoops; and the sleazy coach Laidlaw (Finn Wittrock), who has a rep for knocking up his pupils (“A bona fide sex criminal,” says Horace). Surprisingly, the film keeps its darkly humorous tone throughout, in a disarming style reminiscent of the 1990s CBS drama Northern Exposure.
Bringing all the loose ends together is a slightly arduous task that borrows from the Magnolia playbook by bringing everyone together during the blizzard prefigured in the opening scenes and teasing the very real possibility that one or more may not make it out alive. The outcome is unexpected, and even optimistic in a bittersweet kind of way, but it’s a testament to the integrity of this likable, modest indie that it leaves us wanting to spend just a little bit more time these people and find out what happens next.
Title: Downtown Owl
Festival: Tribeca (Spotlight Narrative)
Director: Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater
Screenwriter: Hamish Linklater, from the novel by Chuck Klosterman
Cast: Lily Rabe, Ed Harris, Vanessa Hudgens, August Blanco Rosenstein, Jack Dylan Grazer, Arianna Jaffier, Finn Wittrock, Henry Golding
Running time: 1 hr 31 min
Sales agent: WME