Character studies are the chamber music of the cinema — intimate, uncluttered movies built upon carefully-observed and recreated details. They are movies unplugged, capturing small-scale tragedies or personal triumphs via layers of quiet reflection.
Not a lot happens in “Colewell,” a character study zeroed in on a village postmistress in tiny, ageing Colewell in rural western Pennsylvania. You know what’s coming by the mere fact that I use “rural” and “postmistress” in the same sentence.
And Karen Allen, as Nora, the woman running that ancient, single-window gathering spot for mail, gossip, knitting and personal and community problem-solving, doesn’t give herself to big emotions or drama. Writer-director Tom Quinn lets her face tell her story, her eyes show her past, her dropped-hints reveal us what she’s going through, who these people are to her and who our hitchhiking narrator is to all these folks “back home.”
Hannah Gross is that narrator, who tells stories through conversation where she lists what she’s picked up from her time with her thumb out.
“Life always seems the same length, no matter what age you are.” Time past and days ahead go on “forever–and not very long.”
That’s where Nora is when we meet her, a creature of decades of routine — clucking at her chickens, talking about her favorite “Rose” as she passes on coffee and a few eggs to postman Charles (Kevin J. O’Connor) before donning the blue uniform and making her way to “the office.”
She’s well-past 60, apparently widowed and living on the farm she used to share with her husband. Chickens are all she bothers with, these days.
And then the letter comes telling her the USPS isn’t renewing her contract, that the local office is to be shuttered.
“Personal grievances regarding this transition must be kept private,” she’s ordered. But posting the notice gets the whole village up in arms — words like “legal recourse” and “heart of our community” are bandied about.
Nora? She can take a transfer or retirement.
“They think I’m old and I don’t have any fight left in me.”
Quinn’s elegiac film, the very definition of “a film festival movie” (rewarding, but with few commercial prospects), doesn’t deny the inevitable of such decisions. These cubbyhole post offices have been shuttering all over rural America for decades.
He just follows the silent, reflective Nora as she cooks, tends her flock in the coop and listens to the now-grousing flock that comes to her window every day. Visiting a worn carving on a cliff face on her favorite hike gives up her past.
And signatures, who the mail is addressed to, connects her to the picture’s simple, sweet mystery.
Allen has long been an actress with perfectly expressive eyes, and wearing her years with grace has been a hallmark of her recent work. Yes, she gets to show Nora still has “some fight” left in her. No, Nora doesn’t come off as reasonable when she does.
But “Colewell” makes a lovely metaphor for the emptying-out corners of America, which can be lovely places few want to live in any more, or people aging out of the mainstream of work and thought, watching their lives lose relevance, bit by “retiring” bit.
MPAA Rating: unrated, some profanity
Cast: Karen Allen, Kevin J. O’Conner, Hannah Gross
Credits: Written and directed by Tom Quinn. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:19