Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs.
Release Date: April 13th, 2007 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Bethany Ashton Wolf Actors: Johnathon Schaech, Fred Koehler, Tamara Braun, Jeremy Davidson, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Mulkey
ittle Chenier” (it rhymes with beer) is a tremendously original and poignant tale of believable, average individuals caught in a harrowing, desperate situation. Phenomenal acting by a brilliant ensemble cast, combined with beautifully scripted dialogue and meticulous character development, proves that creative and thought-provoking cinema isn’t dead – especially when considering this film’s limited budget and resources. Quite deservingly, “Little Chenier” won Best Picture at the 2007 Phoenix Film Festival, though its reach beyond the festival circuit has been woefully constrained.
Beauxregard “Beaux” Dupuis (Johnathon Schaech) and his mentally-handicapped brother Pemon (Frederick Koehler) live in the sweltering Louisiana swamps near Cameron Parish, in a tiny strip of land known as Little Chenier. Their mother abandoned them shortly after Pemon’s birth, while their father remains continually away, entertaining various women and delusions of grandeur. Leading the simple lives of fishermen, selling bait at their local shop, Beaux and Pemon really only have each other. Local sheriff Kline Lebauve (Chris Mulkey) admires the two boys, but his son Carl (Jeremy Davidson) despises them – thanks to Carl’s wife, Marie-Louise (Tamara Braun), who is still not-so-subtly in love with Beaux. When Kline is tragically killed in a gas station heist, Carl takes over law enforcement duties, ensuring that Beaux and Pemon will have a difficult time staying out of trouble with the authorities.
Within the initial few moments of the film, it’s apparent that “Little Chenier” is going to be grand. The first line of dialogue, heavily coated in a Louisiana accent with bits of French mixed in, immediately designates the people and the setting as something decidedly different and tantalizing. And the first scene that introduces the developmentally-challenged Pemon foreshadows a deep and emotional story, full of love and heartbreak. Within the seemingly simple existence of the two main heroes lies a complex mesh of relationships, affairs, contempt, and hatred that will all inevitably collide.
The story is carried out with such precision that it’s obvious director Bethany Wolf is comfortable with complicated personas, unusual familial traumas, and dark drama. Long, lingering shots of facial expressions dominate the scenes in which words cannot be used, managing universal comprehension with careful nuance. She masterfully examines the often painful and awkward scenarios that engulf mentally or physically deficient characters, thoughtfully orchestrating the right amount of humor and tranquility into powerfully elegant, emotionally-charged sequences.
The acting is top-notch by everyone in the cast, which is an indispensable boon for independent features. Schaech plays Beaux with conviction and charm and, despite his scripted flaws, is consistently a hero worth rooting for. Koehler’s Pemon is one of the best movie characters in quite some time, sharing qualities with “Sling Blade’s” Karl Childers or “Rain Man’s” Raymond Babbitt, as he brings enlightenment and perspective to a tale of trying friendships and monstrous prejudices. There are also parallels to the duo from John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” who always make for compelling material when adapted to the screen. Supporting actors Clifton Collins Jr., Jeremy Davidson, and Tamara Braun are also noteworthy for the genuineness in which they portray their roles.
So many conflicts present themselves to the hapless heroes, with several unable to reach a solution by the time the film concludes. But the cut-off point the director chose couldn’t have been more appropriate or more powerful. For it is not the future consequences and revelations that these weathered survivors must face, but the present, spontaneous, unpredictable trials that require climactic, affecting resolve.
– Mike Massie