Director: Allison Anders
Screenplay: Allison Anders
Based on the novel by: Richard Peck
Producers: William Ewart, Daniel Hassid, Seth Willenson
Starring: Brooke Adams, Ione Skye, Fairuza Balk
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 101 mins
The American indie film boom of the 90s means an awful lot to me. It was responsible from turning me from someone who liked films into a fully-fledged film obsessive. These bold, offbeat, experimental, raw and thrilling creations were unlike anything I’d seen before and I voraciously devoured every example I could get my hands on. But my tender age meant that I came to most of these films several years after their initial release and, given the fickle nature of the business, many of their directors had fallen out of favour or disappeared completely by that time. An interesting illustration of this is the unofficial ‘class of ‘92’ indie set, a group of directors who released well-received films in 1992 and were subsequently put to work on the ill-fated anthology film Four Rooms, a much-maligned comedy that takes place in four different hotel rooms, with the events of each room being tackled by a different director. Of these directors, two continued to thrive commercially after the Four Rooms fiasco: Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. The other two, Alexandre Rockwell and Allison Anders, continued to make films but couldn’t quite maintain the excitement that greeted their early work. As directors more prone to genre exercises and crowd-pleasing violence, the continued success of Tarantino and Rodriguez was unsurprising but as I’ve grown older and my adoration of independent film has only increased, it is the quieter, more subtle end of the indie spectrum that more often fascinates me. This is why Anders’ beautifully atmospheric, rigorously unsentimental examination of a single mother raising her two daughters in a desolate New Mexico trailer park remains for me one of the classic films of American independent cinema.
Though loosely based on Richard Peck’s young adult novel Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt, Gas Food Lodging is heavily informed by Anders’ own life which imbues it with a greater emotional weight and dramatic credibility. The loose plot focuses on Nora, a waitress at a truck stop who is raising two teenage daughters alone. Trudi is wayward and rebellious while Shade, the younger of the two, is quieter and more thoughtful, spending her time at a small cinema watching her idol, the Mexican actress Elvia Rivero. Shade is played by a young Fairuza Balk, the child star of Return to Oz whose star ascended for a brief period in the 90s when she appeared in The Craft and American History X (not to mention the dreadful Adam Sandler vehicle The Waterboy), and Balk absolutely nails the part. In a rough-edged, uncompromising film, her voiceover narration and gentle good nature are two of the throughlines that help engage an audience who could otherwise have easily been alienated by the overwhelming ennui of the desert setting. For those who demand plenty of event in their narratives, this may still be the case but Gas Food Lodging is a treat for fans of a strongly evoked atmosphere. For most visitors to its locale, this is a place of convenience where the three amenities of the title can be temporarily obtained before moving on. The fascination of the film is what it must feel like to be stuck in this pit-stop permanently.
As the resilient but struggling mother Nora and the defiant but fragile daughter Trudi, Brooke Adams and Iona Skye are kept more at arms length from the viewer than the warm and welcoming Shade but this is a deliberate and astute move on Anders part. The volatile relationship between the mother and daughter is never sweetened by an overt declaration of love but such a thing is there to be seen in the desperation Nora feels in trying to prevent Trudi from winding up in a similar situation to herself. Their handful of clashes with each other stand in for what would be openly broadcast through hugging and sobbing in a more mainstream and patronising film. Anders also wisely keeps the focus tightly on the three central women. Men do figure in their lives as both fantasy figures and fleeting realities and Shade even openly longs for both a boyfriend and a father figure, but ultimately the male roles in the film are considerably shorter if no less well-written. These are not merely male stereotypes for women to roll their eyes at as is so often the case when the gender focus is flipped. All the men in Nora, Trudi and Shade’s lives have enough character and purpose to be present as more than just a concession but they never threaten to overwhelm the narrative dominance of the central trio.
Like so many great indie films, Gas Food Lodging does have a handful of flaws and most reviews I’ve read can’t resist pointing them out but I find a lot less wrong with the film than many critics. I find the acting to be perfectly pitched so as to never be underwhelming but not risk turning drama into melodrama; I find the pacing to be exquisitely judged in its recreation of life in an isolated desert town, something that many other small-town indies (usually set in the suburbs) often sacrificed for the sake of punctuating the realism with showy bursts of quirk; and even the abrupt ending, which I did initially find troubling, is something that I’ve come to see as very fitting, given the fleeting nature of all visitors to this particular part of the world. Like those truckers, we get a brief window into the lives of the locals before moving on. The greatest trick Anders pulls off with Gas Food Lodging though is to ensure that even as we leave this dusty desert town, we take a piece of it with us. In a 90s indie market that increasingly became about gunplay, showy structures and hollow oddballery, Anders film stands out as something real and enduring affecting.
Gas Food Lodging is released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy on 12 November 2018. Special features are as follows:
•High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation, approved by director Allison Anders
•Original uncompressed 2.0 audio
•Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
•The Road to Laramie: A Look Back at Gas Food Lodging: a brand new interview with Allison Anders and Josh Olson
•Cinefile: Reel Women (Chris Rodley, 1995), a documentary looking at the challenges women face in the film industry from independent to studio filmmaking, featuring interviews with Allison Anders, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Penny Marshall, Gale Anne Hurd and others
•Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin
•FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film