J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

The Straight Story

Posted by J on February 10, 2011

There are a lot of road movies, many of which are about individual catharsis. Few, if any, are better than The Straight Story, a celebration of the upper Midwest.  If you’ve experienced them, you’ve probably enjoyed leisurely drives on two-lane highways through the endless cornfields of the Midwest.  This movie offers you such a drive, only you’ll be going at a much slower pace.  Think three miles an hour, on a lawnmower.

Why a lawnmower?  Well, Alvin Straight doesn’t have many options.  He’s diabetic, so he can’t see well, and his hips don’t work so he has to use two canes.  Somewhat stubborn, he insists on going by himself.  And there’s no bus to his brother’s house.  You can’t expect any kind of transportation from Laurens, Iowa to western Wisconsin, unless you provide it yourself.

Straight hasn’t talked to his brother in ten years, when he learns that his brother has suffered a stroke.  73 years old, given a bill of poor health by his doctor, it is now or never for Alvin.  He desires reconciliation with his estranged brother.  With no wife and and one adult child at his home, Alvin could leave, if there were any way to do so.  How can he get to his brother?  That clunky old Rehms lawnmower might be the way to go.

So Alvin stocks up on hotdogs, builds a trailer to tow behind his lawnmower, and heads out.  He’s got 400 miles to traverse.  As it will turn out, this journey is not simply about reconciling with his brother, but dealing with loneliness and old age.

Based on a true story, The Straight Story is not straightforward in its description of Straight’s history.  During his six-week journey, he meets several strangers — a pregnant runaway, a group of bicyclers, a Catholic priest.  At each stop, in each conversation, we learn something new about Straight.  He had 14 children, but only seven lived past childbirth.  He has been a widow for 15 years.  And he is a WWII vet who lives with the pain of a terrible accident.  The more we learn about Straight, the better the movie gets.

Does Straight reach his brother?  He is threatened by the fast pace of vehicles that pass him by.  He also doesn’t have brakes on his trailer, a major problem because his lawnmower is certainly not designed to pull that trailer.   It’s hard to imagine the transmission on his ’66 John Deere lasting for 400 miles — his old Rehms broke down a few miles into the journey.  What would happen if the John Deere breaks down? Not only do we find out, but the movie makes you feel as if you are traveling at Straight’s pace, watching everything else move too quickly. Straight’s pace, it seems, is the right pace for such a journey.

At one point, Straight tells us that he and his brother had, at their last meeting, the harshest of exchanges, fueled by alcohol.  But they used to camp out every summer night on their Minnesota farm, as children, talking to each other.  A brother knows you best, Straight reasons, because he knows your whole life.  Straight’s journey and his attempt to reconcile with family is deeply affecting.  It is a puzzle why more movies like this — G-rated, but not saccharine — don’t exist. The Straight Story is the opposite of Facing the Giants and it makes the hyper-emotional nonsense of such Christian fare look foolish. We should not forget it.


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