20 February 2011 | keidem4-829-441667
A hard but heartfelt trip into Appalachia
I had to feel for writer/director Martha Stephens as she introduced her movie, "Passenger Pigeons," to about six people (including me) at the Macon Film Festival, but what those select few witnessed was a genuinely entertaining and often moving debut feature film that takes a hard but heartfelt look at life in Appalachia.
"Passenger Pigeons" opens with a scene familiar to all, a roadside memorial, but this one isn't for a highway crash. Instead, we soon learn its for a man who died in a mining accident in Eastern Kentucky, and it's there we meet Elva (Caroline White), who's being interviewed by a newspaper reporter. She is part of one of four stories that Stephens weaves together to find some hope but few easy answers in the wake of this tragedy.
The best of these, and the one that's at the movie's center, is that of Moses (Bryan Marshall), who returns home to Kentucky to bury his brother. Unable to face it directly at first, he goes to smoke pot with some old acquaintances before visiting his brother's widow Annie (Karrie Crouse) and bonding with the nephew, Benny (Will Casse), he hardly knows at all.
The other characters we meet are Buck (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Nolan (Brendan McFadden), an odd couple of coal industry suits sent to do put the best face possible on this for the company, one about to retire and the other his replacement. Much of the movie's humor comes from what happens when they're forced to camp out for the night.
Also in this tableau are Elva and her boyfriend Jesse (Kentucker Audley), who works in the mines and, despite Elva's wishes otherwise, can't see himself doing anything else. And finally, Stephens herself plays the young activist Robin, who comes to town with the unfortunately timed task of protesting against the coal companies but instead finds friendship with retired miner Valentine (Jim Johnstone) in one of the movie's best moments of grace.
Its in the skill with which Stephens loosely ties these stories together that I was reminded of the work of Robert Altman and John Sayles. They never quite collide and are never forced to unfold at anything but a natural pace, and together they weave a portrait of a community that's running low on hope that still tries to find it wherever they can.
As for Stephens, she's raising money now to shoot another story set in Kentucky, "Pilgrim Song," so here's hoping she makes it. As for "Passenger Pigeons," catch this one if you can, because it certainly deserves to be seen by more than the few people who joined me for it in Macon.
Keith Demko http://reelfanatic.blogspot.com