As a sideline to her recurring role in the world’s most successful vampire franchise, Kristen Stewart has made a mini-career of starring in as many tepid indie projects as possible. While few sink to the embarrassing lows of Mary Stuart Masterson’s The Cake Eaters (when its soundtrack wasn’t overwhelming everything else, Adventureland was not without its useful observations), it’s hard to think of a similarly appealing and marketable actress so committed to taking on subpar roles. Unfortunately, The Yellow Handkerchief, Udayan Prasad’s three-character road drama, seems pretty typical of Stewart’s selections, though unlike Cake Eaters, the film fails to provide Stewart the courtesy of a role with scene-stealing potential.
Starring as Martine, a popular but parentally neglected Louisiana teen, Stewart hits the road at film’s beginning with spazzy, possibly Asperbergers-suffering misfit Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), a young man with a talent for photography and a penchant for reminding everyone that, appearances to the contrary, he’s a native American, as well as a world-weary drifter just released from prison, Brett (William Hurt). As the movie unfolds, the three unlikely travel companions, thrown together by their desire for escape and fresh beginnings, zip across the state’s dusty byways in Gordy’s junk-heap convertible.
The film begins with a fair amount of promise as Prasad and screenwriter Erin Dignam signal their commitment to exploring the possibilities of the three-character dynamic, setting the interactions off against the handsomely photographed landscapes of a rural Louisiana rich in local color. (Sometimes too handsome, as in a shot where Gordy’s car wends through a wheat field—and sometimes with too much local color, as when the camera lingers on glass bottles hanging from a tree as if to pound home the idea of a distinctive regional culture.) While Gordy pines for Martine and attempts to position himself as her protector, the young woman turns her attention to the ex-con who holds for her an obvious fascination—and probably attraction as well. Brett, for his part, drifts stoically through the proceedings, occasionally dispensing sage advice and defending Gordy against Martine’s putdowns. But before too long, the filmmakers exhaust the limited framework they’ve developed for the threesome and the two kids are reduced to reciting their character précis to each other (she’s lonely, he’s misunderstood) before the filmmakers’ waning imaginations result in an awkwardly contrived, if not unexpected, romantic coupling.
Running parallel to the present-day narrative is Brett’s backstory, which Prasad presents through occasional flashbacks triggered, at first, by that character’s involuntary memory and, later, by his verbal narration to his traveling companions. A more action-oriented counterpart to the character-based drama of the present day story (the only action that occurs in the contemporary narrative comes in an embarrassing sequence where the trio has a run-in with a couple of stereotyped local yokels), the flashbacks detail Brett’s ill-fated relationship with his ex-wife (Maria Bello) and the circumstances that led to his incarceration. As the past story increasingly comes to take over from the present, the filmmakers play on the audience’s implied curiosity as to what unspeakable event could have landed Brett in his current predicament. Unsurprisingly, said event is duly horrific and its presentation sufficiently overwrought to satisfy our assumed need for high drama, but the film is less interested in exploring the ramifications of the character’s guilt than in granting him an easy redemption—provided he only admit his mistakes.
When that redemption finally comes it’s in a final scene so calculated for sentimental effect—and so committed to constructing its pair of romantic couples at any costs—that it seems to disregard much of the rest of the film’s dynamics in favor of neat resolution. Still, by that point, whatever tensions the filmmakers have located in those dynamics have long since been exhausted, so an easy consummation should hardly come as too much of a surprise. Nor, for that matter, should anyone be unduly shocked that another makeweight “indie” drama comes packaged with a certain Twilight star’s name above the title, even as her not negligible talents keep calling out for more inspiring material.