Movie Review: Understanding and Redemption in rural Iowa, “Two Ways Home”

“Two Ways Home” is a low-key indie drama about family history, personal failures, mental health and redemption. Beautifully shot, empathetically-acted and reasonably well-written, it benefits from that essential ingredient that makes or breaks many a low-budget independent film — a sense of place.

It’s a rural Iowa story from start to finish. We may meet Kathy (Tanna Frederick of “Irene in Time” and “Hollywood Dreams”) in the middle of an urban drama cliche, as one-half of a hold-up team robbing a convenience store. But this gas-and-groceries quick stop sits in the shadow of a grain elevator.

The robbery is played with a hint of comic effect. Her brute of a partner (Pat Frey) may be screaming “Get on your knees and STAY SCARED!” Kathy, waving a gun around, is more laid back, trying to impress the danger of the situation on the customers and clerk by pointing out the “general bravado” she and her partner are displaying, their “recklessness.”

Naturally it goes wrong and of course she’s left holding the bag — and two guns. Jail it is, but we’ve gotten a hint there’s something wrong with her beyond her poor decision making. She was hearing voices mid stickup. And unlike most Americans tossed in jail, she gets help with her “chemical imbalance.”

“Two Ways Home” is the story of what happens when she gets out, the old reputation she can’t shake in tiny Garner, Iowa — the tween daughter Cori (Rylie Behr) who wants nothing to do with her, Kathy’s not-wholly-sympathetic parents who’re raising her, the ex Junior (Joel West) who has taken up with a former high school rival, and the grandfather (Tom Bower) who just had a heart attack, all alone out there on the family’s hog farm.

Kathy figures she’ll move in with him as farm-help and caregiver, keep him out of a nursing home and do everybody and herself a favor as she does. It’s just that no relative, bartender or anybody else who knew her back “then” buys into this.

Bower is one of those character actors that is instantly credible in a rural setting — a veritable Pa Joad figure in films such as “Crazy Heart,” going all the way back to TV’s “The Waltons.” He makes this story instantly credible.

Frederick, a regular in the films of her ex, indie director Henry Jaglom, gives Kathy a light, flippant touch. She jokes about prison teaching her how to “fold laundry” so she’s ready to “be a manager at The Gap.”

We can believe the dismissive, unforgiving Cori is her daughter in an instant. Her voice has changed? “It’s call PUBERTY.” To a friend, Kathy is “my biological mother,” which doesn’t count, because what does is “who raised you.”

“Two Ways Home” has some lovely exchanges between mother and daughter, mother and her mother and wife and her ex. But the script shows its engineering far too often for my taste. An argument starts because we need an argument here to get Kathy and Junior to wrestle each other to the ground. Grandpa’s “issues” may not relate directly to Kathy’s, and thus feel shoehorned in.

The cultural references — TV’s “Oz” went off the air in 2003, is The Gap still a thing? — aren’t just rural Iowa out of date, they’re head scratchers.

But this dying little corner of small-town Iowa is vividly-rendered, from hay barns and grain elevators to the roadhouse and diner down on main street, and the community pool, where gossip and judgment take place on sunny days that aren’t Sundays, where that behavior is reserved for church.

A wrong turn here and there notwithstanding, “Two Ways Home” — performed by an Iowa-centric cast — makes for a thoughtful, warm journey back to a place a lot of Americans will recognize, even those of us who moved away.

MPA Rating: unrated, gunplay, alcohol abuse

Cast: Tanna Frederick, Tom Bower, Joel West, Rylie Behr, Shanda Lee Munson and Pat Frey.

Credits: Directed by Ron Vignone, script by Richard Schinnow. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:32

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