Katherine Dieckmann’s Strange Weather is an odd, stifling, and occasionally quite moving mixture of self-help clichés and genre-film tropes, which are woven together in a thicket of unusually authentic American Southern atmosphere. Dieckmann has a knack for moody details, rendering the world of a small-town woman in succinct and telling brushstrokes.
Because it’s so hot, and since her pickup truck doesn’t have air conditioning, Darcy (Holly Hunter) doesn’t put on her work blouse until she gets to her office, clearly reveling in this illustration of her ramshackle eccentricity. An ex, Clayton (Kim Coates), runs into her, crossing an intersection as she’s rounding a street on her way to work. Knowing that she’s avoiding him, Clayton shoots Darcy a memorably passive-aggressive little wave after she’s forced into saying hello. And the adoration that Darcy’s neighbor and co-worker, Byrd (Carrie Coon), feels for her friend is initially understated and poignant, suggesting that each woman is playing their role in a surrogate parent and child relationship, in which the child is the clear-headed counselor to their elder, who’s muddied by resentment wrought by decades of hard living.
If only Dieckmann had been content to float among these characters, but there’s a mystery that exists to allow Darcy to reckon with her bitterness. We learn that Darcy had a son, Walker (Ransom Ashley), who committed suicide several years ago while in his early 20s. Walker suffered from depression, had a frenemy rivalry with a rich kid, Mark (Shane Jacobsen), and proposed to one of his college professors an idea for a hot-dog restaurant franchise that capitalized on memories he had of his childhood with Darcy. Byrd mentions in passing that Mark now has such a lucrative hot-dog franchise, and Darcy discovers that he’s stolen her son’s idea, exploiting even the memories that Walker had described of walking in the rain to get hot dogs with his mom. The theft understandably strikes Darcy as obscene: This wealthy legacy case, sailing through life on a tide of privilege, spins even more money from the stray moments of pleasure enjoyed by a struggling family. Such a turn of events would drive even a well-adjusted person into rage.
By this point in the film, a pervading drought has grown into an obvious metaphor. We’re told early on that it hasn’t rained in months, as the temperature in Georgia tips north of 95, though the wealthy neighborhoods unsurprisingly aren’t required to ration their water supply. The rain of Darcy’s past with Walker is no longer, now cast in the illusion of a mother’s skewed remembrance. Darcy is experiencing an emotional drought as well, of course, as she’s distanced herself from everyone but Byrd, who’s on the verge of defecting. Dieckmann and Hunter understand something about anger that’s so obvious it’s illusive and under-acknowledged: that profoundly alienated anger at others is anger at oneself. Wracked with grief and feelings of guilt and inferiority over Walker’s suicide, feelings that are already inherent via issues of class, Darcy’s trapped in a carefully cultivated persona of the “free spirit,” which is ironic given the constrictions of her lifestyle. The film’s fetishizing of southern totems—particularly the references to Faulkner, the truck, and Darcy’s Stetson, which is cocked just so as she orders a bourbon—are partially understood as Darcy’s evasions, which Hunter informs with a beautiful pain that alternates between translucency and purposeful shtick.
Dieckmann has an eye for the American South that refutes the condescending sentimentality of most films, capturing the ravages of flooding and famine with a haunting matter-of-factness that interrogates Darcy’s self-pity, especially when she’s grilling one of Walker’s acquaintances as he collects his family from the fallout of a disaster. And there’s a breathtaking confrontation between Darcy and her ex-husband, Wes (Johnny McPhail), which climaxes with a close-up of the man’s frozen, woeful, ultimately unknowable face.
These sequences, though, are often sandwiched in between moments that abound in uplifting kitsch, such as when Darcy strolls underneath a rain machine in a field, “rediscovering” herself, and constant dialogue that provides thematic bullet points that Dieckmann and the actors have already established via physicality. There’s a tough and mysterious film within Strange Weather, though it doesn’t quite escape the strictures of a busy and studiously weird narrative that’s governed by formula screenwriting.