The late mid-80s were the heyday of the “trouble on the farm” drama, movies that warned us of the perils of Big Ag and small town bank takeovers, just before the Monsanto menace became obvious, just after farmers voted themselves into Reaganism oblivion. ‘
Joe Hall’s debut feature “The Road to Galena” is a less political and half-heartedly nostalgic “trouble” story set in the end game era of the Family Farm. It’s about a banker’s son (Ben Winchell of TV’s “Finding Carter”) who waxes lyrical about the work, the land and the people, and has a whiff of “Green Acres” about it in that regard. But “Galena’s” in step with the latest “back to the land” vibe, even if sustainable, small-farm agriculture is one of the many promising angles it all but ignores.
Cole Baird grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, farm country on the banks of the bountiful (and never glimpsed) Chesapeake Bay. Back in the late ’90s he was a star student, University of Maryland bound. But every time he makes noise about changing majors, or at least adding “ag” to his classload, his dad (Jay O. Sanders) redirects him towards “giving yourself options.” Banker dad knows the good times never last. He’s seen as many farm busts as booms.
Cole may have his best girl Elle (“Friday Night Lights” alumna Aimee Teagarden) and his farm-family best friend Jack (Will Brittain of “The Forever Purge”), a guy who can always count on Cole to pitch in to keep his dad’s place running.
But as we’ve seen Cole in a D.C. law firm meeting in the film’s opening scene, and much of this story is told in flashback, we know college is going to change things. Ben’s rowing crew, dealing with lectures from his dad about focusing on his studies, headed to Georgetown Law at his father’s behest. His time “back home” is limited. At some point, Elle and Jack’s inherited farm, and its problems, take back seats to law school, passing the bar, making partner and all that entails.
Elle gets to make the “you’re never here” speech. Jack takes up with Cole’s girl, Cole’s mom gets cancer, etc.
But that work-the-land dream never goes away.
There’s much-plowed dramatic ground for Hall to dig into here, but he waters-down the drama to Hallmark Channel/Positiv TV blandness, which overwhelms the movie. Every character feels generic, every response to every situation more preordained by the simple goals of the script than organically developed.
The homey African American diner owner (Jennifer Holliday) gets one chance and once chance only to show us she’s the town sage — gently shaking Cole out of his sentimental attachment to “a way of life that’s disappearing.”
Cole finds out Jack is spending time with Elle, abruptly punches him, and all is instantly forgiven. Not much of a tussle.
The movie’s frightfully patriarchal, with Elle the practical woman her eventual husband Jack keeps out of the loop about their collapsing finances, and Alsia Allapach playing the rich lawschool girlfriend-turned-wife who schools Cole on the “ethics” of taking the monied, morally bankrupt clients, making partner and living “the good life” in defiance of Cole’s cliched rural values.
Almost everything introduced into this leisurely two hour movie feels undigested, under-developed. There’s an earnestness to all of this that feels more accepted than justified. And with much of the drama watered-down the big dramatic moments aren’t nearly as big as they need to be.
The acting is a bit bland, too, with only a couple of players making their characters pop. The setting is interesting and the stakes are high enough. But it’s hard to fall into a movie where big, risk-taking commitment is missing, in front of and behind the camera.
Rating: R, profanity (third act f-bombs)
Cast: Ben Winchell, Aimee Teagarden, Will Brittain, Alisa Allapach, Jill Hennessy and Jay O. Sanders.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Joe Hall. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:53