Hollywood can do a lot of things that seem out of reach for low-budget movies. Mostly technical things that have little or nothing to do with cleverness, warmth or solid characterization.
Low-budget, independent movies, on the other hand, rely heavily on the script, the dialogue and the performances. They often don't have much else to work with.Of course, when these little films fail, they fail miserably. But when they succeed, even moderately, it's often something so different from what we're spoon-fed by mainstream movies these days that it feels refreshing and is easy to embrace.
Two pictures out now with similar characters and themes demonstrate the difference. One is typical Hollywood, a high-profile comedy-drama with four big stars, while the other is a low-budget, ethnic comedy-drama with no marquee names.
-- "Hanging Up," written by Nora and Delia Ephron ("You've Got Mail"), and directed by Diane Keaton, is as slick a Hollywood product as you could ask for. It boasts a big budget, familiar songs on the soundtrack, lots of elaborate locations (including a replica of the Nixon Library) and four big stars.
Keaton, Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow play sisters, each completely self-absorbed. Keaton is a famous magazine mogul, Kudrow is a mediocre actress laboring on a daytime TV soap opera (a role not unlike Matt LeBlanc's on their TV show, "Friends"), and Ryan has her own catering business and is the only one with a family of her own. The sisters share a love-hate relationship with their father -- played by Walter Matthau as a superficially charming but ultimately hateful character.
Ryan, at the film's center, is their father's primary caretaker, by default. After years of alcohol abuse, he is sinking into a deep dementia and Ryan keeps in touch with her sisters by phone to update them. And Matthau calls her constantly. (At times it threatens to become a two-hour cell-phone ad.)
The movie is loud, obnoxious and frenetic, and none of the characters is warm or particularly likable -- though Ryan comes closest. In fact, these are people you'd cross the street to avoid.
-- "Naturally Native," written and co-directed by Valerie Red-Horse, is also about three sisters, though the film is more of an ensemble. The three are played by Red-Horse, Kimberly Norris Guerrero and Irene Bedard. (Bedard may be familiar as the voice of Disney's "Pocahontas" and for her supporting role in the marvelous "Smoke Signals.")
This is unquestionably a "message movie," though it isn't heavy-handed. Its obvious agenda is simply to portray American Indians as people struggling through life like anyone else. And at that, it succeeds wonderfully.
The biggest weakness is occasional uneven acting, although, despite a wobbly performance here and there, the central characters all manage to become quite endearing, women anyone would welcome into their circle as friends.
If that's not enough, the film isn't afraid to show them doing things that Hollywood takes pains to avoid -- alcohol is shown to be destructive, not glamorous; the characters freely pray to God, in private and together; the oldest sister is a self-described plain, middle-aged, overweight wife and mother, who is shown to be sexually attractive to her husband; and the middle sister tells a potential boyfriend that she is 30, a virgin and intends to remain so until she is married.
Through all their trials and triumphs, family is first and foremost on their minds and in their hearts but not in a cloying way. (The film also takes a bold, if, perhaps, wrong-headed step in endorsing casinos on reservations.)
Even when they have disagreements, the sense is always that these people (including husbands, boyfriends and children) all care about each other deeply -- something "Hanging Up" can't seem to manage.
What "Naturally Native" lacks in sheen, gloss or slickness, it more than makes up for in the genuineness of its characters, the wit of its script and the uplifting encouragement it offers.
And in the context of modern movies, it's an offer well worth taking.
Entertainment editor Chris Hicks may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com