When writer-director Toni Kalem finally set upon making her dream project -- a film adaptation of the 1970 Anne Tyler novel "A Slipping-Down Life" -- six years ago, she made two fortuitous decisions.
First, she added about a decade to the age of the protagonist, Evie Decker, a 17-year-old high school student in Tyler's book. Second, she cast the masterful Lili Taylor as Evie.
Making the character older adds a poignancy that may not have otherwise existed. The casting of Taylor gives the film a powerful center, a bright light that keeps it on course.
Playing a young woman who passionately focuses on something for the first time in her life, Taylor is transcendent in her ability to make Evie utterly believable, even when her actions are to the extreme. Evie is withdrawn and painfully shy, not a combination that is easily translated from page to screen, but Taylor brings to the surface an inner life to which most actors simply don't have access.
Evie doesn't have much of a life. She works at a downscale amusement park in a small North Carolina town. She wears a bunny costume and serves hot dogs under the watchful eye of the park's proprietor. She looks in dolefully on her reclusive dad as he tunes in far-off lands on his short-wave radio.
Evie also listens to the radio -- the transistor kind. She listens to a program that plays romantic songs while a DJ rattles off couples' dedications. One night, Evie hears a musician being interviewed and immediately responds to the soulful sound of his voice and his pseudo-philosophical non sequiturs.
She drags along her dutiful, zaftig friend Violet (Sara Rue) to a local dive to see the musician play. When Drumstrings Casey walks onstage, Evie is transfixed. Everything else ceases to exist as he moves with slow-motion swagger.
Played with laconic intensity by Guy Pearce, possessor of cubist cheekbones and a long lean frame, Drumstrings is the picture of rock 'n' roll cool. He sings in a low, deep growl, then spits out poetic, terse phrases between songs that seem to speak only to Evie.
Obsessing, she begins to appear regularly at his shows. When she snaps his picture, he asks her if she is with the newspaper. Evie believes great things lie ahead for Drumstrings and is stunned that no one else seems to recognize his genius. Consumed by her zeal for his art, Evie performs a near religious act of devotion.
Rather than deeming her a loon, Drumstrings' manager-drummer (John Hawkes) seizes on Evie's act as a publicity gimmick, hoping to land the duo some notoriety because the music isn't doing it. As they spend time together, an odd, sweet romance develops between Evie and Drumstrings and she begins to bloom, her faith in him filling her with heretofore unknown self-confidence.
Pearce brings a Jim Morrison-like mystical aura to his performance and sings with impassioned ferocity. Kalem walks a fine line in presenting Drum- strings' level of talent. He has to be good enough that Evie's dedication is convincing, but there also needs to be that hint that she might be wrong.
Because such songwriters as Joe Henry, Vic Chesnutt, Ron Sexsmith and Robyn Hitchcock penned the songs Pearce sings, it's easy to take Drumstrings seriously. The peculiar "talking out" Drumstrings carries on with the befuddled audience -- a sort of speaking in tongues, with only Evie caring about what he's going on about -- plants that seed of misgiving that the whole thing may not work out after all.
Drumstrings' enigmatic qualities, however, also do the story a disservice. He's a difficult figure to connect with, and it's hard to see what Evie sees in him when he's not singing. The more dramatic sequences later in the film don't have the weight that they should, and it just may be that Drumstrings is not enough of a fleshed-out character to survive the leap from the printed page.
Kalem, a veteran actress whose credits include "The Wanderers," "Private Benjamin" and "The Sopranos," waited 20 years to make "A Slipping-Down Life." After it debuted at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, litigation kept the film from being distributed and Kalem had to wait five more years to finally see it released.
It was worth the wait. Kalem does well by Tyler, preserving much of the dusty, small-town tone of the novel and adapting a memorable screen character in Evie, bolstered by a blissfully vulnerable, radiantly melancholy performance from Taylor.
'A Slipping-Down Life'
MPAA rating: R for language including sexual references
Times guidelines: One fairly bloody moment involving a shard of glass and a forehead
Lili Taylor...Evie Decker
Guy Pearce...Drumstrings Casey
Irma P. Hall...Clotelia
John Hawkes...David Elliot
Shawnee Smith...Faye-Jean Lindsay
Tom Bower...Mr. Decker
A Lions Gate Films release. Director Toni Kalem. Producer Richard Raddon. Executive producers Derinda B. Dallas, Daniel Gerst, Ted Rosenblatt. Screenplay by Kalem, based on the novel by Anne Tyler. Cinematographer Michael Barrow. Editor Hughes Winborne. Costume designer Francine Lecoultre. Music Peter Himmelman. Production designer Russ Smith. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
In limited release.