I should have posted this months ago, but for whatever reason I never got around to it. I wanted to find a way to make a crack about independent filmmakers' habit of giving characters strange names but couldn't make it work. (Here we get a boy named, of all things, Chat.) I also didn't mention the decent alt.country soundtrack. Since I saw EVERGREEN in early September, too much time has passed to remember any impressions other than the fact that I noted the music.
So, here it is, written four months ago but unpublished until now, from the vault...
EVERGREEN (Enid Zentelis, 2004)
Rich people have problems too.
Money doesn’t solve everything.
The grass is always greener on the other side.
If you’re familiar with these truisms, then you have no compelling reason to see EVERGREEN, a well-meaning but overly earnest independent film that imparts this wisdom.
Although the title refers to the trees populating the film’s Washington state landscape, EVERGREEN is also a play on words that indicates teenage Henri’s envy of those better off than her family.
Kate (Cara Seymour) needs a fresh start in life. Broke with nowhere to go but her Latvian mother’s house, she and daughter Henri (Addie Land) relocate to the Evergreen State. The living arrangements aren’t ideal. Mother and daughter must share a mattress on the floor. The sieve-like roof directs rainwater into streaming leaks instead of keeping it out.
Henri finds her mom’s claims of a new, positive beginning dubious at best. It isn’t long before Kate jumps into a relationship with a Native American poker dealer (Gary Farmer) and accepts a job at a cosmetics factory. Kate’s life before the film is largely unknown to us, but Henri’s reactions suggest that she has seen her mother unsuccessfully follow this plan before.
Henri is ashamed of her mother, but even more, she is ashamed of being poor. Discomfort with her situation is magnified when she meets Chat (Noah Fleiss). He comes from a wealthy home and looks to have the life she desires. As Henri’s relationship with Kate strains, Henri gradually takes on Chat’s mom (Mary Kay Place) and dad (Bruce Davison) as surrogate parents. Naturally, all is not as perfect as it appears.
EVERGREEN excels at conveying poverty’s crushing weight. The drab visual palette expresses the emotional toll of the characters’ circumstances. Belinda Moening’s set decoration and Katie Rielly’s production design get the details right too. With its peeled wallpaper and newspapers stacked all around it, the grandmother’s house possesses a dreary, lived-in feel. I was impressed with the sensitivity displayed in the condition of an old car that Kate drives near the film’s end. Ordinarily a car with a cracked windshield and rusted wipers wouldn’t be considered valuable, but writer-director Enid Zentelis strongly establishes how such a vehicle would be precious to these people.
While Zentelis and her crew succeed in evoking an emotional atmosphere, she falls short in the storytelling department. In underplaying her points Zentelis demonstrates a delicate touch that indicates trust in the audience’s intelligence; however, EVERGREEN is composed of standard teleplay material that fails to surprise and engage at almost every turn.
Henri may be a sympathetic character, but she’s not very interesting. Kate’s struggles, failures, and dreams promise richer drama than a teenager learning that the wealthy lead flawed existences. EVERGREEN'S best scene adopts Kate’s perspective. While trying her hand at door-to-door cosmetics sales she finds Henri at Chat’s house. Chat’s mother Susan doesn’t know who Kate is and insists that she give Henri a makeover. Kate pretends to be a stranger while Henri silently endures the embarrassment. In these fleeting moments Seymour shows the depths of Kate’s disappointment in herself for not being able to give her daughter more.
Watching EVERGREEN feels like being taught a lesson than viewing an instructive piece of entertainment. Message is important, but it can’t overwhelm the enjoyment factor. The film also moves at a snail’s pace, a lethal quality for something with modest plot developments.
Evergreen is being released with digital presentations in AMC Theatres. The press screening I attended appeared to present a projected DVD, not a digitally projected file as seen in some places with STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES or SPY KIDS 3-D. Keeping in mind the subdued visuals, the image was not as bright as it likely should be and was soft, especially when compared to digital projection’s crispness. This is not the optimum viewing experience.