Instead of milk and honey, it's 7-Eleven Slurpees and tuna casseroles in "Promised Land," a knowing, edgy desert drama about young adults who once believed in the American dream.
The protagonists are way under 30, but this is not me-decade, yuppie porn like "Less Than Zero." Instead of the glare of bright lights, writer-director Michael Hoffman gives us the sunset on the mountains' majesty. His story is set in Ashville, Utah, the last outpost of Horace Greeleyism -- and in high school, the last outpost of childhood.
The opening scene is right out of that bounce-back sports drama "Hoosiers," as square-jawed hero Hancock (Jason Gedrick) sinks a basket in the last second to win the district championship. His cheerleading girlfriend Mary (Tracy Pollan) leaps for joy and the school geek Danny (Kiefer Sutherland) squeaks out, "Give me an A." But this is no sports Cinderella story, and Hancock is not Horatio Alger of the hoops. This is about losing the big one.
"Promised Land" is about the erosion of belief -- not exactly a major American movie theme. But then this is not an everyday American movie. It's the antithesis, in a plinking, disturbing minor key -- a refreshing regional work featuring talents who have nothing to do with the Brat Pack. Based on a true-life tragedy like "River's Edge," but with the prairie pathos of "The Last Picture Show," it offers that rare quality -- relevance.
Brought up on red, white and blue bromides, the protagonists have every reason to expect their dreams to come true. But two years after graduation, Hancock loses a college athletic scholarship and returns to Ashville as the town cop. Then Mary comes home at Christmas, torn between her ambitions and her love for Hancock. And Danny -- nicknamed Senator because his father always told him any American could be one -- is now a sweet-natured drifter. He and his trampy new wife Bev (Meg Ryan) are in town for the holidays to meet Danny's family.
The loosely structured story follows the separate travails of the two couples until the four come together for a bizarre reunion in a convenience store parking lot. Although Mary and Hancock suffer mightily, their love pangs are the stuff of star-crossed suburbanites. But Gedrick and Pollan give character to the cliche's with their heartfelt work, and Sutherland and the show-stealing Ryan bring depth and weight to a potentially tiresome pair.
Unfortunately, "Promised Land" is littered with fallen seraphim -- a hood ornament, a statue with a broken wing, snow angels. In fact, it's Symbolism 101, with a few too many angels, ticking clocks, stolen watches, etc., for so modest a production. Not that it is without grandeur -- the geography of Manifest Destiny photographed by collaborators Ueli Steiger and Alexander Gruszynski. And then there is the new age score by composer James Newton Howard, who's added classical passages for the slam-dunk footage that are worthy of a religious experience.
Promised Land, at area theaters, is rated R for sexual situations.