It is as easy to call "Rambling Rose" the best American movie in months as it is difficult to say why.
Set in Depression-era Georgia, this film hits the viewer with the force of a Peter Taylor short story or a novel by Reynolds Price -- Southern fiction at its Chekhovian best. That is to say that "Rambling Rose" is filled with characters who are at once true to life and people you'd like to know. It seems at first "merely" a good, somewhat leisurely story until, before you know what's happened to you, it reaches deep into your heart.
Credit this to an extraordinary screenplay by Calder Willingham ("The Graduate," "Little Big Man" and "Paths of Glory") who adapted it from his novel of the same name; to an ensemble of remarkable actors (Laura Dern, Robert Duvall, Lukas Haas and Diane Ladd) who convince us that they are indeed people inextricably knotted in the nexus of love; and to a director, Martha Coolidge, whose sometimes charming previous works ("Valley Girl," "Real Genius") never promised so rich a blossoming.
Rose is a big-boned, beautiful girl from a dirt farm in Alabama who has come to work for "Daddy" and "Mother" Hillyer -- a pair of gently bred, educated and compassionate people -- and their three children. This is the sort of family in which Daddy (Duvall), when presented by his sexual instincts with a challenge to his decency, cries out: "I'm standing at Thermopylae, and the Persians shall not pass!"
What is causing Daddy (along with the other Hillyers and everyone else in their small town) such commotion is Dern's Rose -- a good-hearted girl who, apparently, does not know how to say "no." And sometimes she does not need an invitation.
The trouble starts when Daddy, trying to make Rose feel welcome, tells her: "You are as graceful as the capital letter S. You will adorn our house. You will give a glow and a shine to these old walls." Mistaking his chivalry for something else, Rose flings herself at him and, when he reproves her, she creeps in shame into the bed of 13-year-old Buddy (Haas), seeking brotherly comfort.
This is one of the most erotic, charming and funny scenes in movies. At first, Rose's response to Buddy's sexual advances is, "You're just a child and wouldn't understand, but that kind of thing can stir a girl up." But after his novice fingers have brought Rose to orgasm, her response is as human as it is hilarious. "I've robbed the cradle and fell into Hell," she wails.
This is all very funny, but the movie modulates effortlessly into serious issues when a heartless surgeon (one of the many men who has presumably benefited from Rose's search for love) suggests an unneeded hysterectomy -- Rose has an ovarian cyst -- that would surgically correct what he calls "a case of nymphomania."
Daddy initially agrees, but Mother rises to Rose's defense.
Buddy, who tells the story from a middle-aged man's perspective in 1971, cries twice during the movie. The first time comes at the end of the story proper, just after Rose's wedding. It is a response to a boy's loss of his first love, of someone who has irreparably changed his life. The second time is from his perspective as an adult -- when Daddy, now a very old man, tells him the latest about Rose.
This time Buddy weeps for more than just Rose and for himself. He realizes that sometimes the most beautiful things about life are lost to all but to those occasions when memory speaks. "Rambling Rose" is one of those occasions.
Starring Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Lukas Haas and Robert Duvall.
Directed by Martha Coolidge.
Released by Seven Arts.