“The Hater” is a light political satire struggling to escape from a somewhat cumbersome big screen comedy, a classic 85 minute movie not-quite-smothered inside a 108 minute one.
It has too many characters to do justice to, even at that length.
But get past a shrill and exhausting opening act overstuffed with manic patter from our idealist/environmentalist “yellow dog Democrat” speechwriter, played by Joey Ally, who wrote and directed this. Let this just-burned-a-flag-in-protest speech writer go “home” to Alabaster, Texas and move in with the guy she refuses to call “Grandpa.”
And darned if this wry, sideways look at “the way things are today” doesn’t find its heart and its spark. Grandpa is a Fox News-addicted old coot played by America’s Coot, Bruce Dern. These two aren’t going to see eye to eye about much. But they’re family. So, your move, old man.
“What else are you doin'” these days, he wants to know, “besides criticizing America?”
Dorothy has come home to a place she hated, a place where being the daughter of a beloved drama teacher didn’t spare her from bullying as we’ve seen in an opening scene set in her childhood. Her chief tormentor back then was rich boy-quarterback Brent Hart. Decades later, smug, handsome Brent (Ian Harding), the son of a state senator, is running for the legislature.
Dorothy, who breathlessly-arrived with a notion of “flipping Texas blue” has a new idea. She’ll run against this smirking Summer’s Eve in the primary, beat him for the first time in her life, and then drop out, guaranteeing the seat will flip to a Democrat in the general election.
She doesn’t know how to dress for the campaign trail, how to tone down her rhetoric, how to hide her ardent passion for environmental causes. She can only hope to not choke on her own bile when the Women’s Chamber of Commerce chair (Nora Dunn), a gun-shop owner, dismisses climate change with a “God’ll take care of that” and wishes, fervently, that people would “just support our president.”
Did I mention “The Hater” is set in 2020? No? Kind of an important thing to leave out.
Smiling, perky and popular ex-classmate Greta (Meredith Hagner) is here to introduce Dorothy to some folks, and then add “campaign manager” to her Army wife lifestyle. No, they don’t have a prayer in this race. But in the movies, fate intervenes the way Russians intervene in actual elections. Dorothy catches a break.
She accidentally disrupts a robbery in a convenience store. And by the time ditzy ex-classmate Vicki (Ali Larter) has blundered through a breathless “hero” story about this “attempt to burgle” (Armed robbery, honey.), Dorothy is a “gun hero,” celebrated all over town. If she can make a dent in the Jesus vote, corrupt Brent may be in trouble.
Ally, an actress turned first-time feature writer-director, straddles a lot of political fences, or tries to, in this role and with this film.
“Abortion” is a “third rail” in the red corners of Texas, unless somebody personalizes the decision and reminds Republicans of their anti-government “personal freedom/responsibilities” credo. Guns are as convenient a prop as cowboy boots (there’s a joke they missed), but a conservative mom with kids in school whispers her plea for “some sort of regulation” of AR-15 Nation after Ally speaks.
Ally’s Dorothy can’t avoid the right wing TV, right wing talk radio, conservative pulpit preaching, bumpers sticks and what not. But that doesn’t mean she won’t grit her teeth at Grandpa’s Tucker Carlson fixation. “How can you WATCH that racist gnome?”
The cleverest thing about “The Hater” is the way it upends expectations just enough to keep things interesting and make you wonder “How will Ally write her way out of this?” And then Ally manages just that.
Movies oversimplify politics, and the film’s message that you vote for people, not ideologies, seems dated and quaint in the bloc-vote Susan Collins/Joe Manchin/#MoscowMitch rubber stamp era.
But Ally’s still managed a movie that reminds us of when almost all of us listened to science, when “compassionate conservative” was a label worth selling and why idealists get into politics, to change something most of us want fixed, no matter what the NRA or Big Oil want.
Rating: unrated, some profanity, violence
Cast: Joey Ally, Meredith Hagner, Ian Harding, D’Angelo Lacy, Ali Larter, Bruce Dern and Nora Dunn
Credits: Scripted and directed by Joely Ally. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:48