Valley Inn (2014)

22 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m just going to say right up front that I was a little uncertain about writing this review. I thought maybe I should see it a second time just to make sure I wouldn’t neglect to mention something important (non-spoilers, mind you). With that said, there’s a lot that happens in “Valley Inn,” with many side characters and subplots. And if I get to see it again later, I’ll revise my review unless it’s not anything important I forgot to comment on the first time.

“Valley Inn,” which recently premiered at the Little Rock Film Festival, is a two-hour comedy-drama, shot in Northwest Arkansas, and takes place mostly in Hindsville, a small community in Madison County. This is one of those films that show a pleasant portrait of a small Southern town and its residents, and while sometimes it can be a little overly drawn, it manages to present itself as a cute, enjoyable film that didn’t bore me or make me wish I was somewhere other than this town.

“Valley Inn,” directed by Kim Swink and Chris Spencer (and written by Swink and Nelsie Spencer), begins as New Jersey college student Emily (Jordan Scott) is assigned by a Christian book company to travel to Hindsville, Arkansas, to sell books door-to-door for the summer. She brings along one friend, Maddy (Whitney Masters), and stays one night in a secluded rural home. But one day and one night in this change of scenery with some odd folks is too much for Maddy, as she takes the car and leaves Emily alone in town for the summer. (Sheesh, that’s pretty low.)

Emily finds a room to sleep in above the Valley Inn, the local café & hangout where all local gossip is spread. And from here on in, it’s an episodic series of events involving Emily trying to fit into the town, make a good quota on her book sales, and even finding herself in a relationship with the local preacher’s handsome son, Lee (Colley Bailey). Oh, and there’s also a brief subplot involving “Sunday/Fun Day” with other members of her “bookfield,” where everyone is perky and happy, and the leader doesn’t allow tardiness, even for church reasons.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are also many side characters and subplots in “Valley Inn,” and every now and then, the film cuts back to these people for us to catch up. There’s the nice woman who runs the Valley Inn (Natalie Canerday); there’s the “cowboy” with a reputation (David Lansbury); the waitress he constantly tries to woo (Joey Lauren Adams); there’s the high-class couple (Kenn Woodard, Mandy Fason), one of which may have a secret deceitful plan in mind, and their pretty daughter (Jaclyn Marlan); there’s the elderly woman (Candyce Hinkle) who refers to Jesus by the nickname “Jerry”; good God, there are a lot are a lot of quirky characters she comes across. Some of them are caricatures, and not much time is used to develop anything other than one trait; but to be fair, isn’t there one thing you know about people you only meet once in a while in a strange place? That’s what the film basically is—a vacation from one place to another (in this case, from a New Jersey town to a small Southern town) and the many people they come across. In that respect, I liked these people and was curious as to what would happen each time we cut back to them. There’s a scene later on that begins as people walk out of a church, apparently for a funeral—I actually kind of gasped because I was concerned about knowing which one of them died. That scene comes way late in the film, and that’s how I knew “Valley Inn” worked for me. I cared about these people. And also to the film’s credit, I can see some of these people in my own small hometown. Oh, and there’s also a brief subplot involving “Sunday/Fun Day” with other members of her “bookfield,” where everyone is perky and happy, and the leader doesn’t allow tardiness, even for church reasons.

(Oh, and I forgot to mention the small part of a little boy who makes his own home war movie with his friends and other, older locals. I not only feel like I knew this kid; I feel like I was this kid when I was making random home movies in my hometown!)

We get a good feel of the town. Aside from the Valley Inn, we see rural-area homes, urban houses, annual rodeo events, cattle auction yards, a country-music jamboree, a low-water bridge, a beautiful swimming hole, and even a brief moment at the home of a shotgun-packing meth-cooker (whom Lee must rescue Emily from)—hey, when someone goes door-to-door for a full summer, you expect to come across at least one psycho.

Now I have to make a confession. I went into this movie not knowing exactly what it was about. I knew about some of the cast members and that it was labeled as “a love-letter to small town America,” but not much else. When I was introduced to Emily and Maddy, and it shows Maddy reacting to their place of assignment, the population number of the town, a dead critter on the side of the road, and trying her best not to laugh at the behavior of her house hosts (even when Hinkle refers to Jesus as Jerry), I kept paying attention. I expected the story would be about Maddy as this stubborn New Jersey girl who comes across these people, learns about tolerance and patience, and manages to befriend the locals. Granted, that’s probably predictable, but the way Whitney Masters was playing Maddy, I would have looked forward to it! She has a natural, appealing screen presence that Jordan Scott by comparison seemed kind of bland, even with her perky morning mantra, “I feel happy! I feel healthy! I feel terrific!” (By the way, doesn’t she wake people every time she shouts it in the early morning? Does anyone even mention it to her?)

But no—Maddy is gone from the movie after 15 minutes, and she never returns. So instead, we have a character arc for Emily as she goes from being repressed to a free-spirit. There’s nothing wrong with that, as Emily does seem like the type of person who needs a change in her life, and the people she comes across, particularly Lee who manages to kidnap her from one of her door-to-door business days (by the way, guys, don’t try that at home), are just the people to help her break free. And Jordan Scott did manage to make me care for her.

Yes, “Valley Inn” does go all over the place (actually, you could call this five or six LRFF Arkansas Shorts thrown into one). Yes, some of it is corny and predictable. Yes, some of it is over-the-top (I won’t go into “Fun Day” and its crazy leader). But I can’t hate this movie or even give it a mixed review; there’s just so much that I like in this—the actors, the overall atmosphere, the smart writing (some good dialogue here), and little details that amount to the big picture. Something else I like about “Valley Inn” is that it’s very chill. It has a laid-back tone that strangely works in the film’s favor. A lot of it is just watching these people interact with each other and go about their days and make a living in this town. And I don’t mind that in the slightest. I enjoyed “Valley Inn”—it’s cute, it’s funny, and it contains a great deal of atmosphere.

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