Our modern-day Alice (Emily Grace, baring body and soul in her feature debut) hails not from Lewis Carroll's England but rather New Hampshire -- dig that Nah-thern accent when she goes off on all the "ree-tahds" at community college. Having made off with some ill-gotten cash, she's on the run down to Miami, where she hopes to build a better life with the help of a college-bound pal, and escape the embarrassment of a poverty-stricken mother who works as a cafeteria lunch lady.
When she leaves her car unattended for just a moment at a rest stop, however, she returns to find herself approached by Sandra (Judith Ivey), a down-home Southern woman who claims she saw someone messing around under it. She seems friendly enough, and suggests that she and her husband Bill (Bill Raymond) will follow close behind in their RV until the next rest stop, just in case anything breaks down. Having been harassed on the road by obnoxious drivers, Alice gladly accepts the help. Sure enough, Alice's engine gives out in near-irreparable fashion, and a scary redneck stops his car nearby, but right in the nick of time, Bill and Sandra show up wielding a gun to frighten off the interloper. Bill suggests Alice would be best off leaving her car by the side of the road, taking only the license plates so no towing fees can be traced back to her. When Sandra mentions that they're going down to Florida anyway, Alice gratefully climbs aboard and tags along.
You have only to be a tad more astute than the average teenage runaway to realize that all might not be quite kosher here. Especially since any attempt by Alice to keep her own money in her own possession is met with polite but firm refusals, and Sandra keeps saying things like, "You want to catch a fish, darlin', you have to bait the hook." She makes this last remark in conjunction with buying Alice sexy clothes and teaching her how best to apply makeup, but it seems unlikely that such generosity comes without cost. When Alice finally realizes that Sandra's line of work is prostitution, and that easy cash can be had by becoming her protge, it seems like a free-will decision on Alice's part, but is it, or has she just been very carefully manipulated? And who really caused her car to break down, if indeed anyone was responsible?
The answers come, in time, but for the bulk of the movie, what we're watching is the maturing of a young girl into womanhood in often harsh fashion, but always under the watchful eye of the weirdly matriarchal stranger who happens to have become her traveling companion. Sandra's daughter is far away, and Alice has grown up without a father, so along with the taciturn Bill (he says "Howdy," and Sandra adds, "Now he's told you all he knows!"), this dysfunctional threesome kinda-sorta fills the emotional voids in one another's lives, all while allowing many others to service the more literal holes.
And they criticized Pretty Woman for being a fairy tale. There may be no wealthy Richard Gere here to save the day, but the story arc is all about Alice taking charge, and doing so with a whole lotta weird love and nurturing of the sort Oprah would probably advise against.
The film's shot on digital video by Richard Connors (Just Another Girl on the IRT), and the medium's portability was likely essential to filming inside a real RV. It's unfortunate that this portability wasn't used to greater advantage -- the camera setups are static and feel like they were selected for film, but the image is of low quality. Recent movies like Pieces of April have used the low-res and mobility combo to their advantage, taking the cameras hand-held and giving things a home-movie immediacy film would be hard-pushed to match. There's a risk of self-consciousness, of course, but Pieces of April avoided it, and What Alice Found, in the hands of a similarly adventurous director (or director of photography), could have done likewise and become something truly special. Instead, it's got strong drama but a cheap look, and the latter factor makes this a slower journey to emotional connection with the characters than it needs to be.