Female-Driven Bentonville Film Festival Savors Small Town Life

By  · Published on May 8th, 2015

Bentonville Film Festival

The Bentonville Film Festival was created to champion women and diversity in film, but if any BFF brass feels the need to add yet another component to their already lofty mission statement, they might consider folding in “small town living” to the formula. Bentonville is a charming small town, complete with a tree-peppered square that’s surrounded by a mix of new businesses and old standbys (and, yes, even the Walmart Museum, which is a real thing, and one that even includes a pretty snazzy-looking soda fountain), along with a well-regarded art museum and, for the time being, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile (no, I can’t stop talking about the Wienermobile, and no, I’m not sorry).

Day three at the BFF included screenings of two films that take place in towns not unlike Bentonville, complete with the particular politics that seem to automatically accompany living amongst smaller populations (like rampant gossip and hanging out with people you went to high school with, even when you’re pushing forty). Perhaps it’s the canny setting or maybe my city-hardened heart is beginning to soften, but Thursday’s offerings mostly melted me into a big pat of movie butter.

First up, Ami Canaan Mann’s Jackie & Ryan basically imagines what Country Strong would look like if it was more of a homespun and low-key outing that didn’t involve people who were successful enough to essentially bedazzle their entire (empty, trying, but obviously still sparkly) lives. Ben Barnes toplines the feature as, and this is not a hyperbolic statement, a deeply attractive hobo. A train-hopping music man without a place to lay his head at night, Ryan rides the rails in order to find a good place to play his jams and collect some cash in his guitar case. It’s a fine life – or, at least, fine enough for Ryan – but things go topside when Ryan’s good heart gets him in trouble.

That trouble is Jackie (Katherine Heigl) and her inability to walk and read a text message without nearly being run over by a local in a big truck (no mirrors on that truck, buddy?). Perpetually sweet Ryan rushes to Jackie’s aid, only to have his pack stolen while he’s attending to her wounds, leaving him with his only his chivalrous (but not cloying, Barnes is lovely and quite natural in a role that could easily be kind of cheesy) manner and his guitar to his name. Can you guess where this is going? Eh, not quite. Like Ryan, Jackie is on her own journey, one that used to center around music, too. The pair bond over their rough-shod lives and the power of a good song, all set against the backdrop of a snowy and cozy Ogden, Utah.

Jackie & Ryan is admirably small-scale, but it’s got some big-time charm, and Barnes in particular really makes the film sing, and he disappears enough inside of his role that it will make anyone flat out forget about Seventh Son and The Chronicles of Narnia. The film’s third act suffers from a lack of cohesion and sensibility (it’s one of those films that has about nine different endings, though it seems dissatisfied with most of them, simply plowing ahead into the next one), and the chemistry between Barnes and Heigl never really comes together in the manner that Mann appears to have wanted it to, but the feature is sweet and good-hearted (like Ryan) without being cloying (also like Ryan, come to think of it).

Special bonus: a teensy supporting turn from Clea Duvall that is divine, along with very nice work from Emily Alyn Lind, who looks so much like a young Brie Larson that it’s almost distracting.

According to Mann, Jackie & Ryan is set for a platform release later this summer, including both a limited theatrical release and a VOD rollout.

The BFF tour of small town America continued on with Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap, a pair of names that will likely prove more recognizable to book readers than to movie-goers (not to say you can’t be both, obviously). The film is Trigiani’s first crack at feature directing and writing (she wrote for The Cosby Show back in the nineties, which might account for the appearance of Jasmine Guy in a small but very touching role), but it comes from a major place of love. Trigiani actually first wrote Big Stone Gap as a screenplay decades ago, before turning it into a hugely successful novel series. Still, her longtime dream was to make her story into a film and, as it so happens, she’s made a real winner here.

Set in tiny Big Stone Gap, Virginia (Trigiani’s own hometown), the film introduces us to a colorful cast of characters – perhaps too colorful, the kind you’d only find in a book or movie, weirdly enough – and their late-seventies lives in the very cute (but very quiet) mining town. Mainly centered on seemingly bonafide spinster Ave Maria Mulligan (Ashley Judd), Big Stone Gap tracks the big-hearted town favorite through all kinds of upheavals, all of which are made bearable by her generous nature and her truly excellent friends. When we first meet Ave Maria, she’s resigned herself to the single life, but a series of changes – and even the reveal of a jaw-dropping secret – set her on a course to totally revamp her life.

But will that include leaving Big Stone Gap? And (cough, cough) handsome coalminer Jack MacChesney (Patrick Wilson)? The film is a total crowd-pleaser, packed with big laughs and more than a few tears. You’re going to want to take your mom to see this one when it arrives in theaters this October (this is a compliment).

Just how into small town life did the one-two punch of Jackie & Ryan and Big Stone Gap make me feel? Well, I had dinner on the square tonight, eating too much in the way of primo Bentonville Italian to make room for some Bentonville soda fountain. There’s always tomorrow.

Catch up on Days One and Two of the Bentonville Film Festival right here.