It takes a few minutes' worth of patience to get to the pleasures of Wrestling With Alligators, the feature debut of writer-director Laurie Weltz. The prologue may have you checking your watch before the credits are over. The characters are introduced, cavorting on the beach in that same sort of faux home-movie footage used at the beginning of TV's The Wonder Years, by a narrator who informs us that they were an unconventional family unit, and that the story we're about to see concerns that certain summer when everything changed. Didn't last year's The Opposite of Sex spoof this sort of thing into obsolescence?
Well, no, it really didn't. Despite all the scathing mockery of the coming-of-age genre in the narration, in the end, The Opposite of Sex, like so many other parodies, turned into another example of its own target (it had, at least, the grace to admit it). And why wouldn't it, after all? The parodic urge, unlike the satirical urge, arises most in those who feel intimate affection for their target.
The coming-of-age story is as worthy an object of affection as any other. No matter how many times it's been trivialized by vain, self-glorifying artists, when it's well done it can be a deeply satisfying and meaningful form. And once it gets past that dreary, obligatory opening, Wrestling With Alligators is a finely crafted example.
The narrator, and comer-of-age, is Maddy (Aleksa Palladino), a teenage runaway from Florida to a small town in coastal New Jersey in 1959. A tough tomboy, Maddy works at a gas station and lives in a boarding house run by Lulu (Claire Bloom), a long-retired star of Perils of Pauline-style silent serials. Lulu's other guests include Claire (Joely Richardson), a beautiful French war bride turned widow, and an artist named Mary, played by Hal Hartley favorite Adrienne Shelly. Maddy, who's fled a bad parental situation, finds herself in bliss surrounded by all these lovely, loving women.
The story begins, however, with a loss--Mary leaves to get married. Very shortly thereafter, Maddy learns that Claire is pregnant, and that the father (Jay O. Sanders) won't give her the money for an abortion. He wants to marry her, and though Claire doesn't love him, she can't see many alternatives.
Maddy can, however. She can see all sorts of alternatives that women of the '50s weren't even supposed to consider, and she's entirely prepared to wrestle with the iron-jawed and potentially dangerous gender traditions of her era. That's what gives Wrestling With Alligators its unexpected lift--it's as if Weltz, who was Maddy's age in the '70s, used the character as a sort of time machine with which to ask women of the period why they couldn't simply have a baby out of wedlock, or do anything else they wanted to. Because these questions, as Weltz and co-writer Scott Kraft have written the role and as Palladino plays it, are asked honestly and respectfully rather than as rhetoric, there's nothing jarringly anachronistic about the device.
Palladino's straightforward, stoic yet irony-tinged performance carries the film, although Bloom and Richardson are the name players, and there can be no doubt that Richardson, with her exquisite long legs and her sad-angel face, is the real star presence. The pregnant Claire smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish, and seems all the more deliciously continental for it.
What's most invigorating is the crisp sense of pace that Weltz, a longtime editor and producer for television, brings to the film. What looks, at first, like it's going to be a self-congratulatory feminist ramble proves full of brisk incident and invention. A lot is packed into the 87 minutes of Wrestling With Alligators; it's like a good short story or novella--it doesn't waste your time. Maddy's scheme to obtain the money Claire needs is tense and funny, and Claire's visit to the tittering basement abortionist is truly scary without sensationalism. The romance between Maddy and a handsome carny (Sam Trammell)--to whom she explains the title--is touchingly handled.
The staleness of that opening doesn't completely vanish, of course. Certainly the movie has scenes that push too hard, and details that just make you groan--the guy who wants to marry the glorious Claire, for instance, also collects butterflies in jars and puts them under glass as a hobby. But a film as sweet and skillful as Wrestling With Alligators earns some indulgence toward the occasional heavy-handed passage.
Wrestling With Alligators
Directed by Laurie Weltz.
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