Movie Review: Oscar Winners Spacek and Hoffman — and their children — lift “Sam & Kate”

Sweet, slow and unassuming, “Sam & Kate” is a romantic melodrama that came into being because two Oscar winners relished the chance to act on screen with their acting progeny. So whatever sparks Sissy Spacek and Dustin Hoffman set off in their scenes together are augmented by the pleasure of their kids playing the long-suffering offspring of two very different and sometimes difficult — downright prickly — elderly parents.

A small town in Georgia is the setting. How small? Well, somehow, the folks who might be the only resident Jews there have a church they’re not shy about attending, especially when Christmas programs roll around.

Hoffman plays Bill, a widowed curmudgeon inclined to stir up trouble, even from the seat of a store-provided scooter at their local home improvement warehouse.

“You don’t like me but I like YOU,” is his re-assurance that his kvetching and kvelling to the only employee on duty is all in good fun.

Jake Hoffman is long-suffering Sam, who is over 30, still lives with the old man, still works at the local candy factory and still takes weed brakes with his musician stoner pal (Henry Thomas) and still has no direction in his life and no clue what to do when he first casts his eyes on the lovely bookstore owner with the long, auburn hair.

Kate (Schulyer Fisk) has an electric smile and a friendly manner, even when she’s shooting down this persistent not-really-a-customer who clumsily makes his desire for her phone number obvious.

“I’m not really dating right now.”

But that church, and that Christmas sermon and performance gives him another chance. Not exactly. Kate’s car won’t start, stranding her and her mom Tina (Spacek) after the service. Jake is quick…to let his mechanically-inclined dad take a look, and just as quick to let Dad suggest that they give the ladies a lift, as it’s not just a dead battery.

Thus begin two sort-of courtships, with bluff and temperamental Bill charmed by the ethereal Tina, and Sam wholly smitten with Tina’s daughter.

But you know how romances and rom-coms work, especially the ones labeled “melodramatic.” We need “obstacles.” Everybody has her or his “secret.” Everybody has “issues.” Some seem solvable, within the 110 minutes of this should-be-90-minute dramedy. Some won’t.

The young couple gets most of the screen time here, even if their accomplished parents out-sizzle and outshine them, especially in the early going.

Hoffman the elder is amusingly brittle and snippy about his “talented” son. “Maybe some day he’ll do something with it.” Bill shrugs off doctor’s orders and knows his days are limited.

“I’m on GRAVY time!”

The father-son arguments here can seem contrived, but relatable. It’s the mother-daughter disagreements that ring truest, downright triggering. Their “secrets” are the bigger ones.

Thomas, the “E.T.” kid, leans into his supporting role and lays back in his line-readings, creating a fun “local character” in just a few scenes. If you’ve not followed the fact that he now sings and plays guitar, you’re in for a treat.

There are just enough of those treats in the painfully “out of your league, dude” attempted courtship of Sam and Kate, and in the sparkle of Spacek and the bite of Hoffman to make this sweet nothing of a movie worth your while.

The character arcs are predictable, and abruptly traversed at times in actor-turned writer-director Darren Le Gallo’s debut feature. Yes, he got lucky with his casting. Yes, few are likely to get that lucky a second time, in that regard.

But as long as their are little lives worth a little intense scrutiny, there’ll be indie films like “Sam & Kate,” pleasant diversions that give legendary stars the indulgence of a victory lap, this time with their kids along for the ride.

Rating:  R for some drug use and (profanity).

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Sissy Spacek, Schuyler Fisk, Jake Hoffman and Henry Thomas.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Darren Le Gallo. A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:50

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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