The Rising Place
November 8th, 2002
With a solid cast of almost famous thespians, assured direction from first film filmmaker Tom Rice and complete lack of modern day irony, "The Rising Place" is exactly that kind of wholesome entertainment that the sorely neglected family demographic has been waiting to see for a long time. With careful and aggressive marketing, this Flatland Pictures release could become the first sleeper of the season when it opens in early 2003, after its New York and Los Angeles exclusive runs which begin today.
Every year, Mississippi schoolteacher Virgnia Wilder (Frances Fisher) takes her son Emmett (Liam Aiken) down the Delta, to spend Christmas at the house her mother Ruth (Frances Sternhagen) shares with Aunt Millie (Alice Drummond). While putting away her clothes in a bedroom closet, Virginia finds a box filled with Aunt Millie's letters from the early 1940s. Begging off a trip into town for some last minute Christmas shopping, Virginia begins to read the letters, flashing us back to days before Pearl Harbor when Millie Hodge (Laurel Holloman) was a young woman, pregnant by a young man who just joined the Army Air Corps. Despite the support of her best friends Wilma (Elise Neal) and Will (Mark Webber), and the undying support of her mother Rebecca (Tess Harper), Millie still finds herself the pariah of the her small town. Her father Avery (Gary Cole) has his own issues with his daughter's condition, and life in Hodge household is rough for the entire family.
A stroke landing Millie in the hospital slows Virginia's progression through the letters. The prognosis isn't good, which adds to Virginia's desire to finish the letters and find out what happened sixty years previous. As the story returns back to the past, we see Millie become a strong, independent woman, one who tries to find her place in a world where women do not always have the same opportunities as men and where being friends with someone of another race can be troublesome. As the letters abruptly end towards the end of World War II, Virginia joins her aunt in the hospital to find out how this story ends. We learn how all the little stories tied together and how decisions made in one place affected the outcome of several others.
Writer/producer/director Tom Rice, who spent over a year in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, delivering papers while he campaigned to family and friends to get this film financed, is the North Star of this project. His determination to see this film made helped Rice cast the film himself without a casting director. Additionally, it should be noted that Rice also was the production manager, accountant, payroll supervisor and co-transportation coordinator on this film (he can also be heard as the piano soloist on the film's score). Yet somehow, despite all these different tasks, Rice has made a beautiful, impressive film with genuine warmth and heart. If this is the type of film he can make with so many distractions, one wonders what Rice would be able to do when he's able to concentrate solely on directing on production days.
The cast is uniformly excellent. In addition to the fine cast already mentioned above, the film also features the likes of Billy Campbell as an Army lieutenant sympathetic to young Millie's search to locate the father of her child but unable to help, Beth Grant as the owner of a local home-style eatery, Mason Gamble as her young son, S. Epatha Merkeson as the cook and mother of Wilma, and Tony winner Jennifer Holliday as the singer in a local honky tonk, who can also be heard on several songs from the soundtrack. How Rice was able to assemble such a great cast for a period piece with such a small budget is amazing, yet everyone in the cast delivers authentic performances that belie its outsider status. The film moves along as its own assured pace, never slowing down to focus on a useless point or unnecessary line.
The look of the film also contradicts its low budget. The cinematography of Jim Dollarhide's is strong and assured, consistent in quality. Those unaware the film was made for less than the craft services budget on a Hollywood blockbuster would never know simply from watching the film. Along with the period authentic look of Mark Horton's costumes and William J. Blanchard's production design, the aesthetics of "The Rising Place" is simply wonderful.
I give "The Rising Place" an A for effort and an A for execution. A wonderful departure from the often sardonic filmed entertainment of today, one that deserves to be enjoyed by all.
My rating: A