“There are 50-something women everywhere! Why do we only see them in the world but never on the screen?”
This was the question that prompted Katherine Dieckmann to set out and make Strange Weather. Following the screening on Thursday night at Cornell Cinema, writer-director Dieckmann joined the audience for a conversation about the making of her most recent film.
I find her initial question striking because the only reason I wanted to see this film in the first place was Holly Hunter. I’m a fan of hers; I don’t care if she’s pushing sixty or most of her recent roles are mothers or kind-hearted neighbors, because she shines in major and minor parts alike. Consider the small and mighty mother Emily in The Big Sick. Seriously — why are actresses of her age not often offered lead roles?
I also want to make note of how strange was the atmosphere in the theatre. There were no more than three students, and old white couples filled up the seats. I frequent every theatre in Ithaca and I’ve never experienced something like that. This goes back to something we were talking about — if people in my age range are not interested in stories about 50-something women, those stories will never be told because of lack of profitability. It’s not even about whether they’re worth telling.
But Strange Weather is worth it.
Set in Georgia, the story follows Darcy Baylor (Holly Hunter), a divorced 50-something woman working as an administrative assistant at a small university. Upon the news that she may lose her job to budget cuts, Darcy finds out that her late son’s friend from business school might have stolen her son’s idea, making him a fortune as a hot-dog restaurant owner. She grabs her bag and a best friend and off they go.
Born and bred in Georgia, Hunter nails the leading role impeccably, bringing the gritty, free-spirited yet pain-ridden Southern woman to life. Darcy is a complex character who is at once unbreakable and fragile, and Hunter excels at capturing this juxtaposition in her mannerisms and decision-making. She shows her teeth whenever she or someone she loves is belittled; but look at how she gently drags her bare foot over the back of her dog! I also love her little quirks like gardening and collecting Stetson hats, and even the not-so-adorable ones like smoking and procrastinating over the application. Those are the subtle touches that make her real and relatable.
Carrie Coon tries her best to add life to the conventional truthsayer/bestie role as Byrd. She is deceptively easygoing, but Coon’s performance certainly suggests that Byrd is holding onto a secret with incredible weight. In fact, this is the first role Coon decided to take on since playing the twin sister in Gone Girl. “She just hated the way women are written in films, “ Dieckmann remarked.
Byrd’s black girlfriend Geri (Andrene Ward-Hammond), with her very limited screen time, is meant to send a message: “I want to show a plural South. The South is not a place where you only see black people when they’re suffering. There are educated, middle-class black women out there too.” Again, I truly appreciate how most characters in Strange Weather are underrepresented and/or convention-defying, which makes this film difficult to make in the first place. “We didn’t get money until the 70th investor we talked to, ” Dieckmann sighed, “even with Holly Hunter on board. We eventually shot it with a very low budget and in 20 days.” I worked on set over the past summer, and a DIY romcom with only two locations took us three weeks.
If you’ve seen the film, you might have noticed Glenne Headly’s brief but stunning performance as Darcy’s childhood friend Mary Lou as well. It’s always a pleasure to watch her shine in major and minor roles alike. She passed away not long after the movie was released, so if you’re watching the film, make sure not to let her part slip away.
However, as my screenwriting professor loves to say, “to have a great film, you must first have a great script.” That’s exactly what Strange Weather lacks. The plot is creaky and sometimes contrived. Darcy makes some confusing character choices, for example. Her first reaction to the upsetting revelation is to get drunk at a local bar and sleep with its owner. She insists on taking the back-roads on an ostensibly urgent journey just because she “doesn’t like trucks.” And while they make the business plan seem like such a big deal, she just casually loses it and gets mad — first, reprinting shouldn’t be a hard job when the plan is in the son’s email, and then she doesn’t even need it to nail the final showdown!
Back to contrivances, the movie is filled with familiar images and ideas. I get it that the mercurial weather is supposed to be a reflection of Darcy’s emotional turbulence, but it’s too overt to feel right. Other blatant expositions and symbolisms make the movie busy and stagy. What was behind the decision for her abusive ex-husband to be mute? What’s the difference between this encounter and having Darcy rant about her grief and regret to a wall? Again, it is an obnoxiously convenient choice to have a catharsis without the trouble of constructing a conversation, especially when the previous scene has gone all the way to give us every bit of information about this guy and his family. I actually asked about this choice and Dieckmann said she might be too uncomfortable to talk to him if he’s still very much alive. I personally don’t buy the reason because Darcy doesn’t know he’s that sick until she actually sees him, and I believe she is ready to talk when she goes in. The confrontation between Darcy and Byrd, filmed with flawless composition and pacing, feels similarly melodramatic and over-earnest.
The rusty pickup truck, roadside diners and gas stations together create an authentic-feeling Southern vibe, but the closing image seems particularly jarring to me: Darcy happens to walk into a cotton field when the sky is lit perfectly in the background, and the irrigation machine happens to turn on as if cleansing her of the burden from the past? Dieckmann mentioned the decision to use this ending instead of one where all three women are driving to work, and the long-gone rain miraculously falls. “It’s a belabored metaphor,” she proudly announced. Well, call it metaphor, symbolism, serendipity or whatever, I just can’t fall for that.
While the critical social commentary, top-notch cast and beautiful cinematography compensate for the unsatisfying plot to an extent, Strange Weather is more like a character sketch forced into a feature length drama-mystery. I would rather watch these extremely rich characters literally talking to each other and sharing stories than this disappointing, all-too-familiar road trip. The movie reminds me how in some video games, we see beautifully detailed characters in an ill-defined landscape with blank space and rough edges left underdeveloped.
On a last note, Dieckmann briefly talks about her upcoming project, which is also about 50-something women. Let’s hope Dieckmann’s characters come in a world with equal force.
Ruby Que is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.