James Jay Edwards reviews Tuscaloosa, a film directed by Philip Harder, adapted from a 1994 novel (of the same name) written by Glasgow Phillips.
Tuscaloosa is the story of a college student named Billy Mitchell (Okja’s Devon Bostick) who is home for the summer and working as a gardener at the mental hospital that his father (Argo’s Tate Donovan) oversees. While on the job, Billy meets a free-spirited patient named Virginia (Natalia Dyer from Stranger Things) with whom he becomes instantly infatuated. Virginia convinces Billy that she is there by mistake and asks him to help her escape. Billy starts sneaking around with Virginia, the two forming a volatile relationship. And all of this is happening in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the seventies, under the shadow of the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement.
Music video director Philip Harder, best known for his clips for Incubus’ “Drive,” Foo Fighters’ “Next Year,” and Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha,” makes his narrative feature film debut with Tuscaloosa. Harder adapted the screenplay from the novel of the same name by Glasgow Phillips, and the movie acts as sort of a companion piece to the book. Tuscaloosa seems a bit disjointed, and its only when certain scenes are approached within the context of the novel that everything makes sense. There are gaps in Harder’s film that are filled in by Phillips’ book.
(Tuscaloosa, theatrical release poster, Cinedigm)
That’s not to say that Tuscaloosa is not an enjoyable movie. It’s got a fun boy-and-girl-on-the-run vibe, sort of like a less violent Badlands, or a much less violent True Romance. Billy and Virginia are a quirky couple, and the audience is completely on their side, whether they’re sneaking around avoiding Billy’s father and the rest of the asylum staff or making a full-on run to get away. They’re a sweet pairing, and whether Virginia is legitimately insane or not, you want her and Billy to make it.
Simmering just under the surface of the movie, there’s also a political subplot to Tuscaloosa. Billy’s childhood friend, an African-American named Nigel (Marchánt Davis from The Day Shall Come) who he considers a brother because of how close their mothers were, is part of a group that is active in the civil rights movement, so the racial tension of ’70s Alabama sneaks its way into the storyline. This is where Tuscaloosa gets a little fragmented. The melding of the romantic and social narratives isn’t always smooth. It’s not enough to distract from Billy and Virginia’s story, and that’s sort of the problem. The civil rights thread seems shoehorned in instead of being an organic part of the story.
From a visual standpoint, Tuscaloosa functions as a cool time capsule of the early seventies. The clothing, hairstyles, cars … everything is period correct, or at least enough to generate some retro nostalgia for those who remember the era. There’s even a scene at a drive-in theater that’s playing a triple feature of Deliverance, Fists of Fury, and Blacula. Kind of makes you want to be a teenager in 1972. Maybe just not in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, though.
Tuscaloosa is a simple movie about a simpler time, only with an undercurrent of uncertainty and turmoil. So, maybe it’s not so simple. But it should be seen that way, because the simplicity is what makes it what it is. It’s also what makes it entertaining.