Few first-time directors get to work with such a stellar cast as Gabrielle Savage Dockterman did with her 2005 independent film Missing in America, now available on DVD. Danny Glover anchors the movie as Jake Neely, a crusty Vietnam vet who has fled his demons to a solitary life in the Pacific Northwest woods. David Strathairn is the ailing army buddy who tracks Neely down and leaves his half-Vietnamese daughter (Zoë Weizenbaum of Memoirs of a Geisha) in the care the only friend he feels he can trust. Linda Hamilton brings earthy humor to the role of a widowed shopkeeper whose life is also transformed by the arrival of the little girl. And Ron Perlman is heartbreaking as Red, a permanently traumatized, mute vet who lives like a wild man in the backwoods.
Yes, it’s a cliché: the unexpected arrival of a child giving meaning to the lives of sad, withdrawn adults. But the film largely overcomes that handicap, thanks mostly to three factors.
First, and least important artistically, is the film’s antiwar message. There’s no explicit reference to current events, but the bitterness expressed by these vets at the senseless destruction of life makes the filmmakers’ point of view quite clear.
Second, Dockterman’s richly atmospheric depiction of the way these people live resonates powerfully not just with veterans but with anyone who has known loss. There really is a community of Vietnam vets, permanently injured emotionally, mentally and physically, who have decamped from society to nurse their wounds in the woods. Vets who’ve never met really can recognize each other without speaking, as those in the film do. Adapted from a story by Vietnam vet Ken Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dockterman and Nancy L. Babine, the film captures the loneliness of life in those rainy woods for war-damaged figures like Neely and Red.
Third, and most important, are the performances, especially by Glover and Weizenbaum. The former breaks somewhat from his more typical action and humor roles to portray the embittered, self-hating, but ultimately salvageable soul at the center of this sentimental drama. He conveys the character’s woes, and the awakening of fatherly love, through expressions and body language more than words. It’s quintessential movie acting, a performance that would probably be mentioned in Oscar speculations if there were a theatrical release.
The catalyst for Glover’s best work here is the talented and adorable newcomer Weizenbaum, a marvelous discovery in whom Dockterman can take great pride, especially since the actress had only been in a few stage productions prior to this film (it was made before Geisha.) Her portrayal of the abandoned girl, Lenny, is funny, touching, and as broad or subtle as the scene requires. (In the commentary Dockterman points out several inspired moments the actress improvised.) The onscreen chemistry between her and Glover is irresistibly heartwarming.
Yes, we’ve seen this kind of thing before, but in Dockterman’s hands – abetted by Sheldon Mirowitz’s mercifully tasteful score – we get our catharsis without feeling overly manipulated, even after a shocking plot twist. And we also learn something about a subculture I, for one, had no idea existed. What I didn’t like was the set-up. Strathairn is a fine actor and has some very touching moments as the little girl’s doting father, but the way his character arrives, reconnects with Neely, and sets the story in motion feels contrived. It’s not until he takes off, leaving the two main characters to get acquainted, odd-couple style, that the movie comes to life.
Another, smaller flaw is an out-of-character display by Lenny, during a scene with Hamilton’s character, of a seemingly supernatural level of empathy. It relates to an alternate ending that was wisely left for the Special Features section.
The Special Features also include a few deleted scenes and the very detailed and enlightening director’s commentary. The short piece about the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC is also worth watching.