War Eagle, Arkansas (revised review)

4 Oct

Luke Grimes and Dan McCabe in

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This is a “revised” review of “War Eagle, Arkansas.” When I first watched and reviewed this film three years ago, I saw it as the great film it was and wrote a very favorable review. It was a film I would definitely want to see again. And surely enough, I did. I rented this film several times at the local video store in my Northeast-Arkansas hometown until I ultimately bought it there for $10.75. It was well worth the cash. The reason I’m writing a new review of it is because I feel there’s more I can say about it now, especially considering that it’s now one of my absolute personal favorite movies.

I love this film. I mean, I really love this film. It’s not just that it’s a well-executed, well-acted, and very credible independent film, but there’s also its sense of place (an idyllic rural community that hits very close to home), the excellent characterizations (believable, effectively-realized characters all around; they remind me of people I know/knew), and its courage to tell a story that is emotionally accurate even if it goes against what most audiences would like to see (the resolution is melancholy and yet hopeful, with a hint of satisfaction nonetheless). All of those elements speak to me in ways I didn’t expect.

The film is somewhat based on the true-life friendship of producer Vincent Insalaco’s son, Vincent III, and wheelchair-bound Tim Ballany. A similar friendship is imagined in the film, with Enoch Cass (played by Luke Grimes) and Samuel “Wheels” Macon (Dan McCabe) in the small town of War Eagle (said to be “at the top of a plateau in the Ozark Mountains”).

Enoch and Wheels are both outcasts—Enoch, because despite him being a gifted baseball player with a chance at a university sports scholarship, he has a terrible stutter that doesn’t allow him to carry out a full sentence half the time, and that also makes him somewhat insecure; and Wheels, not only because he’s confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, but because he is a witty loudmouth who rarely shuts up. They’ve been friends their whole lives, they hang out around town every day, and despite their disabilities, they are able to create a full personality all their own in a way that a long-running friendship can create.

The film takes place in the summer after Enoch and Wheels have finished high school, and is essentially a slice-of-life drama simply about certain events in this time period surrounding this central relationship. Things happen because they are supposed to do happen—they simply are, and it’s more about how these things happen. It’s told episodically, as it shows Enoch preparing to pitch for the All-Star baseball game in Fayetteville, working up the courage (and speech) to ask a girl he likes out on a date, and wondering about his life in his hometown and what life could be like elsewhere.

These are all very relatable issues. Particularly for me, speaking as someone who has lived in a small town most of his life (and also in Arkansas, believe it or not), there were many times when I would feel tired of the all-too-familiarities and think of moving outward to a new life in a new surrounding. But there would always be at least something in that town that always made it feel like home—it was my home, and the people in it made it worth staying for a little while longer. And that’s Enoch’s deal here—his best friend Wheels, and also his family, are important to him, despite his wishes of leaving.

Even if you haven’t felt that way in your life, you realize how accurately it is portrayed in this film. In the case of Enoch wanting to ask out a local girl, Abby (Misti Traya), every guy has felt this way before. Working up the courage to ask her out, not knowing what the response will be, uncertain of what will happen if she actually says yes, and so on. There are embarrassing moments that ring true, one of which is very painful—it’s when Enoch meets Abby and her friends and tries to ask her out, but because of his stutter and inability to even let out the first word, her friends can’t help but giggle and laugh at him until Enoch is humiliated and leaves. Eventually, he does score a date with Abby but has to bring Wheels along just in case.

But there are two problems with this new relationship between Enoch and Abby. One is that Wheels is now the odd man out and feels lonely without Enoch (he also gets the feeling that Abby is not right for Enoch after all), and the other is that it gives Wheels time to think about what not only his relationship with Abby does but also what their own relationship does, which is to keep Enoch in a working-class town when he should be taking his chance at a baseball scholarship in Tennessee. This leads to a confrontation in which Wheels, after trying to keep everything bottled up inside, finally lets out to Enoch that he needs to wake up and know what he has to do.

It all manages to fit around a decision that Enoch must ultimately make—either stay in his hometown or leave to play baseball for a Tennessee university. The result may not be obvious to most people, but what’s really important about this resolution is why and how it had to happen, and it becomes even more clear the more times you watch this film (or at least, for me, anyway). Whether you’re satisfied with it or not, it’s hard to deny that it feels very true to life.

What also makes the film silently tragic is the character of Wheels. This is a person that can never be independent and always needs someone to help him, whether it’s his mother or Enoch. So while Enoch has a chance of getting out of this hometown he’s lived in his whole life with Wheels, Wheels is going to feel more and more imprisoned by the community he’s been way too familiar with. You feel for him, because amidst all the wit and profane talk he spews, you understand more of the isolation that he feels and can’t help but sympathize with him.

The film is called “War Eagle, Arkansas,” and surely enough, the town itself feels like a character in the film. A great deal of atmosphere is noticed all throughout as you get a good sense of the environment these characters live their lives in. Particularly, there’s the local diner, the practice baseball field, the farm Enoch lives on with his grandfather and mother, the open fields, the main street, and the overlook near the “War Eagle” sign, where Enoch and Wheels sometimes sit and contemplate. There’s enough atmosphere here that you can understand why Enoch does in fact like this place and why Wheels is imprisoned by it.

I should mention the supporting characters, because they are terrific. For instance, there’s Pop (Brian Dennehy), Enoch’s grandfather and baseball coach, who is crusty and tough with his grandson, and has reasons for being so. This is not a Wilford Brimley type of character that has all the answers and kindly puts them in ways that those in need of help can understand, and he is not a warm presence. Sometimes he’s a jerk, he’s not always right, and he can get a little carried away. Yet at the same time, there’s a sense of humanity that keeps him from fully being a jerk. As the film progresses, we get a little more of his story through Enoch’s eyes, learning more about him through little actions and few words. He is trying to give Enoch the opportunities that were denied to him in his past, like baseball glory.

There’s also Jack (James McDaniel), a black video store clerk who wants to start his own church in a community that’s…well, mostly-white. You would think, since he is a preacher, that he would fit the role that the Dennehy character could have had, and while he does have a few inspirational speeches, they’re not overly written or played unrealistically. This film is consistent in how it doesn’t always go for the easy way out, and that’s true of how Enoch slowly but surely reacts to some of Jack’s advice. Also among the supporting characters is Belle (Mare Winningham), Enoch’s resolving mother who is sick and tired of the feud going on between Enoch and Pop because of the way Pop treats him; she’s an understanding woman who knows when to step in. And last but not least, there’s Jessie (Mary Kay Place), in a brief role that says a lot, as Wheels’ hardworking mother who is still trying to make ends meet.

All of these characters are believable and fully-realized, and the dialogue they deliver seems very genuine. The credit for that, as well as for the ways the story is presented, has to go to the writer, Graham Gordy, and the director, Robert Milazzo. They have created a great portrait of relationships, ambitions, and small-town life, with authentic characters and situations to help present them. And a great deal of credit also has to go to the actors; there is not a single false note in any of the performances. This film probably has my favorite performance delivered by character actor Brian Dennehy, who creates a very credible “crusty-old-man” character with purposes and also regrets. I learn more about him each time I watch this film. Luke Grimes (not a stutterer) and Dan McCabe (not diagnosed with palsy) are absolutely perfect in their roles, and their friendship is very convincing, as if they really had been friends all their lives. Misti Traya is a three-dimensional dream girl, with her quirks and flaws that balance out her good looks and nice qualities. James McDaniel, Mary Kay Place, and Mare Winningham are solid as well.

There’s hardly anything more I need to know about Enoch, Wheels, Abby, Jack, Belle, and Jessie than what I know from this film (and it helps that there are ending texts explaining what happened to half of these people later on). But if there was ever a sequel to this film, I would definitely check it out, because I certainly wouldn’t mind spending another hour-and-a-half with these people. But because I’m sure that a sequel will never come about, I guess I’ll just have to stick with this film as is.

And I have. I’ve watched “War Eagle, Arkansas” a hundred times already and will continue to watch it a hundred more times in the future.

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