There are those films that one simply enjoys. They aren't always critical favorites. They aren't always box office smashes. Many times, they are hidden away in small, independent theaters or on general release shelves of your local, independent video store. They don't win awards, not because there's a conspiracy against them but, quite simply, because they don't deserve awards. Yet, somehow, they become fixed in our memories and make us smile when we watch them. In many ways, it is these films that most remind us why we became lovers of film...aficionados of cinema.
For me, "Madison" is such a film.
It is not a brilliant film, and beyond an award for its positive message at the Heartland Film Festival in 2001, "Madison" will not capture any acting or directing or writing or filmmaking prizes. It did finally, after four years in limbo, get a wide release this year and has barely made a ripple in the box office. It is a film the way films are no longer made...simple, straightforward and life-affirming with, dare I say, "family values." It is a throwback to the Disney films of the 70s and early 80s that challenged us gently AND focused on entertaining us without obscenities or violence or nudity or controversy.
I am, admittedly, a tad biased in my opinion of this film. Having served as an extra on the film during its production in Madison, Indiana during 2000/2001, I've been dismayed for years at its lack of public release. Having not seen the final product, I trusted my own experience in the film...one of fun, simplicity and genuine camaraderie. This was the least pretentious, least guarded film in which I'd ever participated...the director was not a prima donna...the stars were not inaccessible...the entire team worked together to make this film happen and, in my eyes, ended up making this film quietly special.
"Madison" is the story of the "Miss Madison", a hydroplane (in layman's terms "racing boat") sponsored by and the pride of the city of Madison, Indiana. This is based on a true story, however, only native Hoosiers and fans of hydroplane racing would be likely to discern when the story takes a detour into fantasyland or simply twists the truth. The story is like many of the other sports stories filmed in Indiana...the underdog gets a chance and becomes the hero of the day. Is every state filled with stories like these? I often wonder, because it seems to be the Hoosier way of living.
"Madison" stars Jim Caviezel, who was in his pre-Christ days when this film was made and was just starting to attract better leading roles when this film was made. Caviezel, as Jim McCormick, feels like a native Hoosier with a down-home charm, good ole'boy attitude and quiet determination. He is a loyal, conflicted husband and a man who recognizes and fiercely advocates for those who supported him during hard times.
As his wife, Mary McCormack is reminiscent of Bess Armstrong, late 70's/early 80's actress for whom I had a huge crush. I can remember filming and just sitting there looking at McCormack and I just couldn't stop looking. Yes, I admit it...I'm attracted to the retro look...and McCormack is a definite throwback to the traditional "mom" look in this film. She matches this look, however, with a performance of quiet intimacy and simplicity. It's an understated performance that fits perfectly with the atmosphere of the film.
Finally, as the son, native Hoosier Jake Lloyd (yes, that Jake Lloyd from "Phantom Menace") proves he actually can act with a performance that will evoke Ron Howard's early work on "The Andy Griffith Show." Is it a special performance? No, but it sure gives a much better indication how he ever got cast in "Phantom Menace."
In supporting roles, we have an unusually calm and attractive performance by Bruce Dern and another comfortable, familiar performance from Paul Dooley (who, ironically, starred in another of the Hoosier sports films, "Breaking Away").
"Madison" is directed by William Bindley and co-written by Bindley and his brother, Scott. The film is not accurate in certain ways, and rather stereotypical in others. For example, Madison is a rather diverse rivertown...yet, you may notice that not a single African-American (that I can remember) is in the film...hydroplane racing itself is (and always has been) attended by the African-American community, however, there's no indication of that in the film. Likewise, Bindley chose to dramatize the team conflicts in the film...where the truth is that hydroplane racing teams have a competitive, but typically cooperative spirit AND there's always been a certain affection for the "Miss Madison", even though with the exception of this time period she's never had much success (and yes, she still races). Finally, nearly any Hoosier will tell you that we are not nearly as "Hillbilly" as the film seems to portray...while the film certainly does seem to "celebrate" the backwardness...well, there's a touch of truth in it that we Hoosiers would like to deny.
"Madison" is not a brilliant film...yet it didn't deserve to languish on a shelf for four years. It's not one of THOSE films...it is a film that fell victim to distribution problems but is, in fact, a solid, entertaining and worthy addition to the genre of family films. It's one of those films that makes me realize just how much I love cinema...I go out of my way to find films such as this one...I want to find the little film that is undiscovered and I want to see the little guy's film get its chance to shine. That, after all, is the Hoosier way.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic