Melissa Leo, Annasophia Robb, Anthony Keyvan
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
TSB Films (Independent)
I never agree with the Heartland Film Festival when it comes to their selection for their top prize, a $50,000 monetary award for Best Dramatic Feature.
So, it should come as no surprise that the 2010 winner, Travis Fine's The Space Between, strikes this film critic as a ludicrous selection for the year's top prize despite the immensely satisfying performance of Melissa Leo, who is simply one of Hollywood's most underrated actresses, as Montine.
Montine is a seemingly road weary flight attendant, a woman with a bit of a gruff attitude and silent resignation not too far removed from a recent certain flight attendant who found himself unemployed after going whacko after a Jetblue flight. Montine never goes whacko, but there's a quiet edginess to her that always leaves you wonder. Omar (Anthony Keyvan) is a 10-year-old Pakistani American flying alone across country to an esteemed Muslim school...a destination to which he has no desire to arrive and so he locks himself in the plane's lavatory, falls asleep and wakes up to an empty plane.
Do you know where this is going?
Of course you do.
Of course, there is an ever so slight twist. All of this is occurring on 9/11
What follows is essentially a road movie as Montine takes it upon herself to help the young boy return home to his father, a jaunt that will be uncomfortably formulaic despite Leo's wondrously grounded, no pun intended, performance and the film's inherent drama.
Melissa Leo is a joy to behold here, not exactly a surprise yet it's marvelous to see what a truly gifted actress can do with even the most formulaic of material. Rather than playing up to the film's heightened drama and tension around 9/11, Leo embodies Montine as a fiesty woman with an underlying sadness that perfectly companions Fine's low-key, sensitive direction and Joey Newman's excellent original music.
Keyvan holds his own with Leo, as well, by giving a natural, relaxed performance that intertwines that of Leo's quite nicely. As Montine's brother, Brad William Henke shines along with Annasophia Robb.
The problem with The Space Between isn't the performances, nearly all of which are absolutely fine. The problem is that Fine's script is so intentionally dramatic, so overtly formulaic and manipulative, that one is torn as to whether or not a tear or a chuckle is most appropriate. Virtually every stereotype of a cross-country road trip is here, especially the obligatory racism they will encounter traveling across the country as a wounded Americana struggles to cope with the gigantic punch to the gut that occurred on 9/11/2001. So, too, Fine paints the film's Muslim characters so broadly and with such rainbow-tinted glasses that it's not clear if he's simply trying not to offend the Muslim community or he wants us to all gather around a campfire and sing "Kumbaya."
Nearly all is worthwhile as the film winds down, Leo magnificently bringing to life Montine's long held in grief and allowing it to bubble to the surface and the film itself reaching a point of tremendous resonance. Unfortunately, Fine paces these closing scenes a tad too quickly and what could have been an emotional tour-de-force feels rushed and, again, intentional.
While The Space Between's grand prize win at Heartland isn't quite the travesty that has occurred in previous years at the festival that often emphasizes the human spirit at the expense of cinematic quality, it is a disappointing win that feels more motivated by the film's Hollywood roots. Given the history of 9/11 films at the box-office, it's entirely likely that this is one film that will find its greatest acclaim on the indie film festival circuit.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic