"ASlipping-Down Life" almost slip-slid away. Originally completed in 1998 and a hit at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, it has been in commercial limbo since then, held hostage by a dispute between the writer-director Toni Kalem and a producer who had a different, and more commercial, vision for the film.
That dispute resolved and the film restored to its creator's vision, the movie arrives therefore as a piece out of time; its performers, particularly Lili Taylor and Guy Pearce, look disconnected from the faces they wear today, and if you don't know the circumstances up front, seem to have been on extremely effective diets. No, no: It's that magic thing called youth.
The film is derived from a novel out of Anne Tyler's early southern period, and proudly displays all the signature marks of Southern Gothicism as practiced by Tyler's inspirations, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner and others: weirdness and grace, repression and violence, flashes of epiphany, strokes of stupidity and a lot of time at the Piggly Wiggly.
This is the story of Evie Decker (Taylor) and Drum Casey (Pearce), two American kids from the heartland (a small town in North Carolina, though the film was shot outside Austin), doing the best that they can. And that's not very good. Evie, dumpy and repressed and so numb she hardly knows she's there, works at a kiddie park, where she wears a rabbit costume and sells hot dogs. Her only friend is poor, zaftig Violet (Sara Rue), the beauty technician whose weight has proclaimed her another outcast.
Evie lives with her widowed daddy, a man so tongue-tied he can barely speak to her. The only force of self-expression and reality in the house is Clotelia, the sassy housekeeper, who would be a cliche if Irma P. Hall didn't play her with such unique gusto.
One night, listening to the radio in her lonely room, Evie hears an interview with a local rock musician who is either a visionary artist or someone whose brain is so shot away by heavy drug use he makes no sense. Evie assumes the former and somehow finds a way out of her self-decreed torpor to go to one of his concerts.
Drumstrings, or Drum, is a kind of wannabe Springsteen, though there was no Springsteen around when Tyler conceived the character in the late '60s. At any rate, a self-conscious artist, he refuses to play by anyone's rules, frequently stops singing to lurch into long stream-of-consciousness musings on the nature of man, fate, god, love and the price of chili dogs. People usually boo and throw beer bottles but Evie falls in total love. She begins stalking him, but in a nice kind of way. When that doesn't work, she cuts his name into her forehead. So there you have the gist of it: a romantic fable about self-mutilation.
Underneath, the movie seems to be an inquiry into the relationship between the artist and the audience and it turns on how each idealizes the other. For Evie, Drum is the man who puts her unutterable longings and yearnings into poetry, and liberates her soul. For Drum, Evie is the only one who appreciates his deep genius and expresses that respect in forceful terms. So right away you see it: Both of these kids are heading for a fall when they bump into that ugly thing called Reality, and, right after the wedding, fall they do, each in his own way.
Somehow, "A Slipping-Down Life" is better on-screen than in the mind and it's better in its first half than its second. The writer-director Kalem -- who played Angie Bonpensiero, Big Pussy's wife, on "The Sopranos" -- has a wonderful feel for place: she evokes a hardscrabble, grungy, scruffy, entirely cavalier-free south effortlessly, and the lives of these marginal citizens with a great deal of compassion and understanding. She never judges, she never condescends; she sees them as Tyler saw them, as the other Southern Gothics saw them, surreal in aspect, human in heart.
But eventually it becomes a predictable Up-With-People anthem, in which Evie's love for Drum, given even the form of extreme dysfunction by which she expresses it, is transformative. She ceases to be who she was and becomes who she can be. You watch Taylor reorganize her whole performance, from a knotty, nervous (her legs twitch uncontrollably) loser into a capable, proud, confident young woman. Not having read the original, I cannot say if Kalem has "fixed" what feels like it might have been far sadder on the pages. But as it plays, it simply feels like a kind of cop-out. Nobody changes that much.
A Slipping-Down Life (111 minutes, at Landmark E Street and Cinema Arts Theatre) is rated R for language including sexual references.