Friday, June 15, 2012

Citizen Ruth

This is probably one of the most twisted things I really, really enjoy. My husband told me once when we were first dating that I reminded him of Dern as Ruth. Super.

Recently available on Netflix instant download, Citizen Ruth is a dark comedy starring Laura Dern that takes place in the middle of some radically serious events. In forwarning, this is not a film for everyone; the things that go on are disturbing, and whether you're pro-choice or pro-life, you'll cringe, a lot. What makes it worth watching, however, is the way director Alexander Payne (who is having a great year with the Oscar-buzzed hit The Descendants) captures the brilliantly human moments in Ruth's struggle, together with well-done (and at times way too chipper) music and an amazing supporting cast. You may not end up liking the principal character very much, but you might find value in her message.

Some killer deck sealant.

Ruth Stoops has a difficult life; she's homeless, newly pregnant with her fifth child, and any money she comes into she spends on booze and spray paint (for huffing). After getting picked up by the cops with a new can of silver deck sealant, Ruth is brought before a judge who makes an example of her by charging her with criminal endangerment of her fetus but before returning her to jail suggests that he might reduce her charges if she had an abortion. In jail Ruth meets some women who belong to a group called "The Baby Savers" and who are outraged at the judge's suggestion; Gail (Mary Kay Place), the lead member of the group, pays Ruth's bail, cleans her up, and takes her into the family home, hoping to convince Ruth to keep her baby and to stay off drugs. Which doesn't go well.
After a bit of a fallout with Gail over some model airplane glue and the slugging of her son, Ruth gets passed over to another Baby Saver, Diane (Swoosie Kurtz), who actually turns out to be an employee of Pro-Choice in disguise. Ruth decides she wants to have an abortion, and Diane and her partner Rachel are willing to help her obtain one, but as soon as Gail and her husband (played by Kurtwood Smith) find out, they declare a national Baby Saver Alert, attracting the attention of the organization's national chair, Blaine Gibbons (played by Burt Reynolds). In the end, both sides, which claim to be acting in Ruth's own best interest, show they'll stop at nothing to influence her decision but Ruth, mostly oblivious, sits on the sidelines listening to cassette tapes on wealth-building (and ingesting whatever random substances she can find). Can there be a winner in a battle like this one? Not unless it's Ruth (which in a way, it is). 

Limbs on her and Zubaz on him. Fab.

The humanity in this film comes at you in a few different ways; the offensive and the raw together with the honest and the (albeit rare) tender. Ruth's early scenes are dirty-feeling and almost viscerally uncomfortable---the unsentimental sex scene at the film's opening followed by Ruth's violent outburst, the silver around her mouth after we see her huff for the first time, the vomit, her face on the concrete inside her holding cell---pretty repulsive. Later, when Ruth is first adopted by The Baby Savers (wearing a furry animal sweatshirt with hair perfectly curled) and then Pro-Choice (donning Diane's striped Guatamalan jacket over a Frida Kahlo tee), we see her for what she becomes to each group, a pawn, but we are still uncomfortable at each side's inability to "fix" her in helping her, if that's even what they desire to do. It's clearly difficult to have respect or empathy for someone like Ruth, given her actions (abandoning her children, continuing to use drugs after she learns of her pregnancy, physically harming Gail's son, responding carelessly to Diane and Rachel's offer to pay for her abortion, etc.) but one can't help but wonder about her, and be slightly entertained by her outlandish antics throughout the film. 
Bunny Sweatshirt.
Ruth's humanity is slightly damaged, and serves mostly as a joke (constant profanity, flailing limbs, kicking and windmilling when she's scared, to name a couple) but it's still there. As she looks into her brother's window and sees her children eating breakfast, she lingers and later asks how they are. Her first huff of spray paint is shown first with a casually ritualistic setup but then ends with an extreme close up shot of only her eyes, which seem to be filled with more and more fear with each inhale. Later, there are almost-tender moments between Diane and Ruth as Diane legitimately attempts to soothe and comfort her physically, (in a motherly way) but they usually end in Ruth's withdrawl. How did she get this way? Her pacing, explanation scene (performed brilliantly by Dern) after dinner during her first night at Gail's alludes to past abuse, as does one of the final scenes involving Ruth's mother (played by Dern's own mother, Diane Ladd) "Ruthie! Don't do it! What if I'da aborted YOU?" she pleads. Ruth seizes a megaphone and essentially responds back loudly that then she would have at least been spared abuse at the hands of her mother's boyfriend (in different, more blunt vocabulary). 
In any case, the film doesn't apologize for Ruth but makes an interesting statement about social conditions in America, politics, and money. Was it really anyone's business? Hard to say, but I can't say I'd choose either of the two protest sides if hard-pressed . . .