After showing tremendous promise with his first feature, 2003’s inventive and deliriously offbeat Rhinoceros Eyes, Canadian director Aaron Woodley slouches toward the conventional with this melodramatic follow-up. Tennessee treads a path similar to other miser-indies (Ballast, Wendy and Lucy), but without the narrative or aesthetic flair to elevate its woefully tired road-trip-to-self-discovery premise.
Having fled their abusive father 15 years earlier, grown-up brothers Carter (Rothenberg) and Ellis (Peck) hit the pavement in search of their now-missing patriarch when it’s discovered that Ellis is dying of leukemia. Along the way they pick up Krystal (Carey), a Route 66–truck-stop waitress who dreams of becoming a singer but is trapped under the thumb of her brutish state-trooper husband (The Wire’s Lance Reddick), soon in rageful pursuit.
Employing every cliché and sparing no metaphor, Tennessee is as dramatically neutral as the murky brown palette that dominates the entire film. Playing the antithesis of her diva-ish offscreen persona, Carey is effectively drabbed down, yet underused. The lack of high notes in her performance is an unfortunate byproduct of the emotionally flat material; Russell Schaumberg’s lifeless by-the-numbers script opts for needless expository flashbacks and third-act contrivances over any sense of subtlety. More innocuous and unimaginative than incompetent, Tennessee is a prime example of sophomore slump from a director who clearly has better to offer.