As I was watching Erika Arlee's insightful and intuitive A Song for Imogene, I found myself remembering a childhood with summers spent in the hills of Kentucky surrounded by women of strength whom I deeply admired as much for their survival instincts as for the ways that they loved and nurtured this disabled child to life.
I can't help but feel like Cheyenne (Kristi Ray) is such a woman, a woman raised in deep poverty in North Carolina who radiates strength despite the world around her seeming to constantly be on the verge of implosion. A fallen-away musician, Cheyenne finds herself with an unexpected pregnancy and an abusive boyfriend, Alex (Haydn Winston). Determined to do something, she makes a break for it and heads back to her mother's home. Her mother isn't exactly a safe space and we feel that right away, but she's safer for the time being. That is until not long after Cheyenne's arrival back in town when her embittered and ill mother passes away.
While settling her mother's estate, Cheyenne reunites with her sister, Janelle (McKenzie Barwick), a vagabond of sorts and single parent of Noah (Jaydon Hayes). Reuniting families of dysfunction is hit-and-miss at best, a trauma bond in which the trauma ripples every which way but loose.
Having recently had its world premiere at the Bentonville Film Festival, A Song for Imogene is the debut feature from Honey Head Films adapted from a 2017 short film. Founded to be female-centric stories to life, Honey Head has crafted a rich, honest film in which these characters feel less like the caricatures of rural North Carolinian life and much more like fully alive and complex human beings. Other than Winston, the entire cast is comprised of North Carolina-based actors and a good majority of both on-screen and off-screen cast and crew members are women.
As Cheyenne, Kristi Ray soars with an intensity and grace that is mesmerizing. At times achingly vulnerable to the world that surrounds her, there's a beauty and wonder and wisdom in Cheyenne that Ray fully brings to life without all the usual histrionics and caricaturish moments we're used to with this type of role. Ray captures the uncertainty of family chains and domestic abuse yet never lets Cheyenne be completely defined by either one.
McKenzie Barwick similarly shines as Janelle by capturing the awkward estrangement she has with her sister and the complex ways that trauma has also rippled in her life and the ways in which she perpetuates it intentionally and unintentionally. Barwick makes Janelle identifiable and relatable. You know a Janelle and I know a Janelle.
It's remarkable that Haydn Winston can turn in such a remarkable performance as Alex without ever becoming a stereotype. So many actors would have simply turned Alex into some sort of redneck country boy stereotype, however, Winston makes him a more complex human being who is simultaneously ferocious and yet at times more pathetic and laughable. I won't quite say you feel sorry for him, however, there's something in Winston's performance that makes you realize that this Alex was created.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the tender, sweet performance of young Jaydon Hayes as Noah. Hayes has a couple of scenes with Ray that are just sublime.
The lensing by Nic True is almost retro with a soft glow and voyeuristic immersive quality that makes you feel like you're living amidst the unfolding story. It's absolutely tremendous work and beautifully amplifies the film's emotional impact. The music by Jack Oberkirsch has a similar immersive quality and Lizzie Lovett's costume design complements the film's naturalism.
A Song for Imogene is a tremendous feature debut for Erika Arlee after several successful short films. With an intelligent, insightful script that never hits a false note and a strong ensemble cast, Arlee has crafted one of the year's finest low-budget indie films.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic