September 10, 2004
An understated view of poverty and its effect. Enid Zentelis has made an impressive debut with the smart and funny Evergreen.
MOVIE REVIEW ***** (Five out of Five Stars)
By Jay Boyar
Henri is a nice, intelligent 14-year-old girl whose family happens to be poor.
As we see in Evergreen, she doesn't live in a dangerous urban neighborhood. And she's not dodging drive-by bullets or fighting some ugly addiction.
Herni's problems are plainer.
She and her mother, Kate, have to move around a lot, lugging everything they own from place to place in battered suitcases and clumsy black trash bags. For the moment, they have nowhere to stay but in a cramped shack with Kate's elderly Latvian mother, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
The place is a godawful mess and so small that Henri and Kate must share a bed. Kate takes a minimum-wage job at a local factory, which barely keeps them in cheap spaghetti. They live from day to day. And when it rains, the roof leaks everywhere.
As the movie begins, Henri (short for Henrietta) is just starting at a school that's also attended by upper-middle-class students. Her mother warns her to be careful.
"This school has some really spoiled kids in it," Kate cautions.
"What're they gonna do?" asks Henri. "Bite me?"
Her plan is to keep to herself, but she can't.
Chat, a boy from a well-to-do family, notices the pretty girl and, over her objection, buys her an espresso. Soon Henri is spending a lot of time with Chat at his family's home.
She likes him but she loves that big, comfortable house. She's drawn to the family's affluence, which they, of course, take for granted.
The green in Evergreen is the color of envy.
Written and directed by newcomer Enid Zentelis, Evergreen marks her impressive – and impressively understated – debut.
Zentelis doesn't seem to have it in her to be flashy or crude. It's typical of her approach, for example, to trust us to understand why Henri never allows Chat to drop her off or pick her up at her grandmother's place – that the girl doesn't want him to know how poor she is.
Actually, there are many subtle ways that Henri squirms to avoid betraying her poverty.
At one point, Susan, Chat's kindhearted agoraphobic mother, invites Henri to join their family for a chicken dinner. They regard the meal as tasty but ordinary fare; to Henri, it would have been an elegant feast. Not wishing to appear too eager, Henri turns the offer down, even as her green eyes yearn to taste that meal.
In another scene, Henri and Chat are in Chat's room when she asks if she can lie down on his bed. He's excited because he thinks she's coming onto him; actually, she just wants to spread out on that big, comfy mattress.
It's only when Henri's around her family and her mother's new boyfriend – a Native American casino worker named Jim whom she doesn't much like – that she drops her economic facade. When Jim asks where they're from, Henri has a tart reply:
"We're from the country called Dirt Poor. It's very special."
Filmmaker Zentelis isn't the only one who makes an impressive debut with Evergreen. Addie Land, who plays Henri, was recruited at open auditions in Seattle, and she is terrific.
It's Land's natural poise that convinces you that Henri can pass for middle-class around Chat and his parents. Her alert eyes tell you that Henri doesn't miss a thing and that, when push comes to shove, she can improvise.
As Kate, Cara Seymour (Adaptation) strikes just the right note, somewhere between desperation and optimism. Seymour shows us in the smallest of ways – the slight quaver in her voice when she speaks of a brighter tomorrow – that although she wants to be hopeful, she's made too many mistakes in life not to be worried, too.
Mary Kay Place (Sweet Home Alabama, The Big Chill) plays Susan with such warmth she's like a toasty blanket for the whole production. Her welcoming smile is part of what draws Henri to the household.
As her son, Chat, Noah Fleiss comes across as a teenager who's a bit of an operator and who doesn't have much on his mind except sports and sex. You don't blame him for wanting to get Henri into bed, or for being so incurious that he doesn't figure out what she's hiding.
He's just not thinking long-term.
Gary Farmer (Smoke Signals) as Jim and Lynn Cohen (Manhattan Murder Mystery) as Henri's grandmother both give solid supporting performances. And Bruce Davison (Senator Kelly in the X-Men films), as Susan's husband, is gently pathetic – a frisky lush who, deep down, is frustrated and embittered by his wife's fear of leaving the house.
Everyone in this film has a story to tell, and that's part of what makes it so affecting.
Evergreen is hard to categorize. And despite its high quality, it's the sort of movie that can easily slip through the cracks.
Movies that make lots of money tend to have at least a touch of shameless glitz to call attention to themselves. And movies that win awards often do so by projecting an overwrought solemnity.
The understated Evergreen doesn't fall into either group. It's merely observant, touching, funny and smart.
As Henri would say, it's very special.
Jay Boyar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5492.