SXSW FILM 2012
By Linc Leifeste | March 12, 2012
Director: Martha Stephens
Writers: Karrie Crouse, Martha Stephens
Starring: Timothy Morton, Bryan Marshall, Karrie Crouse, Harrison Cole, Michael Abbott Jr., Earl Lynn Nelson, Kristin Slaysman
My 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival started off on a bright note with the world premiere of Martha Stephens’ second feature film Pilgrim Song. The film tells the story of James (Timothy Morton), a public middle school music teacher, who finds himself adrift in life after his job becomes a victim of budget cuts and his relationship with long-term girlfriend Joan (Karrie Crouse) stalls. In keeping with the character of a guy who has checked out of life and is trying to figure out his next steps, he decides to take a couple of months to hike down Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace Trail by himself over the meek protests of Joan, who is trying to play the responsible half of the pair by working her job at a local distillery and at least halfheartedly fanning the flames of the relationship. The two actors perfectly convey the emotions (or lack thereof) of a couple going through the motions in a relationship that is clearly running on fumes.
On the trail, the film turns silent and contemplative with stunning shots of mushrooms, foliage, spider webs, streams and waterfalls, all set to the beautiful soundtrack of nature. But James is not alone on the trail and it is in his encounters with various people that the film further conveys his state of mind, as one who is wandering and not seeking the companionship of others. Instead he is simply floating where the current takes him. While the pacing is slow and the atmosphere meditative, James’ early interactions with others provide a spark, particularly when a colorful pot-smoking park ranger (Earl Lynn Nelson) arrives on the scene, invoking for me thoughts of what Jerry Lee Lewis might have become had his musical career stalled early.
Eventually, finding himself in need of a ride to a nearby town, James hitches a ride from Lyman (Bryan Marshall) and his young son Bo (Harrison Cole). A twisted ankle and fate throw the three together for a longer time than James had originally planned, and during this time James is finally drawn back outside of himself and finds some connection to the larger world. I loved watching the interactions between these two wounded men, seeing the bond slowly grow and the defenses come down until James ultimately opens up in a way that he hasn’t done in a long time. It’s refreshing to see a film written and directed by women telling male stories (instead of the more common reverse) and the fact that Martha Stephens and Karrie Crouse are able to write male characters with such grace and truth is admirable.
Ultimately, James doesn’t find the answer to life and the film doesn’t end with any clear picture of what his future holds. Instead, the film allows the audience to draw their own conclusions and make their own judgments, or to do neither of those and instead just experience a well-crafted week in the life of a person adrift. Probably some of your reaction to the character of James and the film itself will be determined by your take on his initial response to his stalled-out life, whether you see taking a couple of months to go out in nature and look for yourself as wise or simply immature escape.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful soundtrack composed by Andrew Iafrate and Jonathan Wood, Louisville-based musicians who write and perform under the name Wood and Iafrate, which adds an extra element to the contemplative southern feel of the film.