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The Independent Critic

Sally Kirkland, Rosemary Gore, Jeannie Stevens
Peter LaVilla
120 Mins.

 "Oak Hill" Review 
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Filmed on a modest $10,000 production budget by writer/director Peter LaVilla, "Oak Hill" centers around three women trying to live together in a New Jersey "flop house," essentially a communal home for those down-and-out for a variety of reasons.

The three women are Mollie (Rosemary Gore), Madison (Jeannie Evans) and Elizabeth St. James (Sally Kirkland), a seemingly washed up actress whose career has fallen victim to her hard boozin' ways.

There are moments in "Oak Hill" that mirror another indie flick centered around a washed up Hollywood legend, "Man in the Chair," a 2007 film starring Christopher Plummer that garnered Plummer some of his best reviews in years.

Unfortunately, the same is not likely to be true for Kirkland and the ensemble cast of "Oak Hill."

It's easy to understand why LaVilla was attracted to such a story, as Mollie, Madison and Elizabeth are all intriguing characters and given their diverse backgrounds it is compelling drama to watch their inner and external worlds collide.

The problem, and it's a huge one, is that within the film's first 30 minutes I'd already stopped caring about these women, their backgrounds, what brought them to this "down and out" space and, most importantly, whether or not they ever got out of it.

The Coen Brothers can get away with having unappealing characters, largely because they wrap their characters inside stories that are equal parts absurdity, action and quirky. In a film such as "Oak Hill," which practically fits the definition of a human interest film, not being interested in the humans becomes an insurmountable obstacle.

"Oak Hill" most vividly brought to mind the 1999 flick "Freak City," a Jonathan Silverman led film about a young man stricken with multiple sclerosis who finds himself surrounded by "freaks" in a nursing home. Much like that film, "Oak Hill" is plagued by character stereotypes, histrionic and overwrought dialogue and relationships that all too often lack authenticity.

As Madison, Jeannie Evans, for example, never gives us the layers necessary to really buy into Madison's back story. If I don't care about her past, why would I care about her future? A relative newcomer  to film, Evans does almost the polar opposite of what should be done with Madison. Rather than creating a character whose woundedness draws one in, she creates a character whose self absorption and hostility makes it nearly impossible to root for her. It's a novice's mistake to "sell the drama," and here's hoping that in future roles she'll take the cinematic road less traveled.

One would have hoped that having a former Oscar nominee in the cast would have helped Evans more fully explore her character, but even the experienced Sally Kirkland struggles to find solid footing as Elizabeth St. James while too often falling into that same histrionic trap.

Only Rosemary Gore, who has worked with LaVilla before, manages to create a multi-layered character as Mollie. Gore's Mollie is a mostly wannabe stand-up comic whose bubbling mental health issues seem to find her struggling personally and professionally. While Gore occasionally goes over-the-top, and is MUCH more appealing when she simmers, it is Gore's transformation over the course of the film that most convinces and satisfies.

Already the winner of the Best Picture Award at Goldie Fest, "Oak Hill" is likely a film that will be most appealing to those who resonate with its storyline and the issues that LaVilla approaches with the film.

The film's tech credits are generally hit and miss. The cinematography of Brian Timmons sparkles during the film's more relaxed scenes, but the film's brightness occasionally seems to conflict with the starkness of the material.  "Oak Hill" is also hurt by an occasionally intrusive musical score and unflattering make-up and costume design.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic