Movie Review: Oklahoma lives are upended in “13 Minutes” of Tornado Hell

It takes its title from the duration of a tornado passing through an Oklahoma town — “13 Minutes.”

And the twister, when it supercells its way in, is hellishly real and a damned sight better than anything managed in the big budget disaster movie of many years back, “Twister.” The state of the digital weather-disaster mimicking art has advanced that much.

There’s no attempt at sugar-coating what happens to people caught in a Fujita scale tornado. The injuries range from grim to gruesome, so don’t go expecting movie stars to come out looking like they just came from the makeup trailer. Even though they did. Because Hollywood doesn’t actually beat people up for “realism” in “disaster of the week” movies like “13 Minutes.”

The formula for this melodrama will be familiar to anyone who remembers the “Disease of the Week/Disaster of the Week” era of what we used to call “TV movies.” Assorted strangers, family or friends deal with the problems of their everyday lives — here those include relationships, jobs, saving the farm, an unplanned pregnancy and immigration status — until the BIG problem drops out of the sky and nobody’s life (providing they survive) will ever be the same.

Co-writer/director Lindsay Gossling rounded up a good but affordable cast and spent the big money on effects and set dressing.

Cast and crew turn various parts of Oklahoma — Oklahoma City, El Reno and Minco — into fictional Minnennewah, Oklahoma, flattened into a pancaked landfill by a line of twisters that go through. It’s damned impressive work.

Gossling (“Un traductor”) and co-writer Travis Farncombe give the story a modern twist on an old formula. The people in this town are, by and large, an unpleasant lot pre-twister

Paz Vega plays a Latina immigrant juggling jobs as a maid, ready to make that down payment on a house for herself and her just-across-the-border beau (Yancey Arias). Her racist boss doesn’t approve of the boyfriend or the house purchase or her “people” in general.

Sofia Vassilieva plays a pregnant 19 year-old hairdresser who figures she needs an abortion, and has the hardest decision of her life insensitively assaulted by the doctor she visits, played by Anne Heche.

“Babies are a blessing from GOD.”

Plainly, she never met the cowardly heel of a baby daddy.

Dr. Tammy and her husband Rick (Trace Adkins) are about to lose the family farm, unless they can lease a bunch of windmills for part of the land. Rick isn’t the most tolerant of the “No hablo inglés” cut-rate workers he exploits to keep the farm going.

Neither realizes that their slacker son (Will Peltz) is gay. But when push comes to shove, Luke is as quick as his Dad to threaten to “call ICE” when his employee/lover (Davi Santos) gives him backtalk.

Thora Birch plays pregnant Maddy’s single mom, who endures sexual harassment at the car, truck and tractor repair shop just to keep a roof over their heads.

Laura Spencer is the EMT who waited until the last minute to get her ambulance serviced.

And then there’s Minnennewah’s weather power couple. Amy Smart is the town’s emergency services chief, and husband Brad (Peter Facinelli) is a local TV weatherman on the job when “there’s going to be weather.”

Most melodramatic touch? They have a little deaf daughter. You can imagine what dilemma that’s going to create.

Weather watches and warnings are the background noise in everybody’s morning the day of the twister. Locals know when to start paying attention, or so they think — “Tornado WARNING.” But what about the Hispanic newcomers?

And when the storm hits — “13 Minutes” worth at about the one hour mark — who will live, who will be caught out in it and who will know what to do?

The characters have story arcs. Some make the journey from intolerant to something almost tolerant. Hey, it’s America. Baby steps.

Nice touches abound. Facinelli (“Twilight”) drawls his way through some great, off-the-cuff TV weathercaster advice — “Don’t waste time trying to open up windows like they told you in the ’60s,” get your butt into an interior room — into a tub if possible, and duck.

Gossling wisely hangs his film on some really good actresses for the heart-tugging moments, and Vega, Birch and Smart all do their damnedest to make you cry.

Heche gets the most out of her character’s sentimentality over babies and lack of sentiment about anything else, using the actress’s own “difficult” baggage to good effect.

For a movie that probably leans too heavily on those thirteen trucks-tossed-about, roofs torn off and skin assaulted “minutes,” Gossling never loses track of the humanity of the characters and the “There but for the grace of God” empathy that bubbles up for our fellow Americans tested this way.

Maybe “13 Minutes” isn’t a box office or Oscar contender. But for an emotionally-grounded disaster movie, I found it a harrowing recreation of the real thing, emotionally affecting and not bad. Not bad at all.

Rating: PG:13 for peril, bloody images, thematic elements and some strong language (profanity)

Cast: Paz Vega, Thora Birch, Sofia Vassilieva, Amy Smart, Yancey Arias, Peter Facinelli, Will Peltz, Laura Spencer, Davi Santos, Anne Heche and Trace Adkins

Credits: Directed by Lindsay Gossling, scripted by Lindsay Gossling and Travis Farncombe. A Quiver release.

Running time: 1:48

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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