Trading glitter for down-home grit, Mariah Carey gives acting another shot with Tennessee, a musty road-trip indie about (cue pretentious trailer narration!) facing the past in order to find one’s future. As an act of rehabilitation, the pop princess’s latest big-screen performance is a mild success, if only when compared to her prior roles. As an abused Texas waitress on the run from her menacing state trooper husband (the always imposing Lance Reddick), Carey’s underplayed turn proves, if not exactly nuanced, at least restrained enough to avoid eliciting chuckles.
Nonetheless, the fact that Carey’s Krystal dreams of being a singer more or less destroys the fiction at play, casting into further relief Carey’s pop-icon reality, as well as the contrived phoniness of the proceedings. Krystal hitches her wagon to Carter (Adam Rothenberg), who years ago left Tennessee—as well as his high school sweetheart and college football plans—to protect Mom and bro from sadistic Dad, and now intends to return in order to find his old man, whom he hopes can provide bone marrow that will save leukemia-stricken younger sibling Ellis (Ethan Peck). From Ellis’s initial, ominous bloody nose, to his thematically important fixation on photographing mountain peaks at sunset, to Carter unconsciously following in his hated father’s boozing habits, to the placid, twangy aesthetic that coats everything with off-road realism, Tennessee blazes not a single novel trail.
Serving merely formulaic find-yourself melodrama, the film coasts along lackadaisically, its early modesty helping to partially offset the corniness of its race-against-cancer setup. Director Aaron Woodley and screenwriter Russell Schaumburg, however, establish scenarios that they assume can then be resolved via whatever preposterousness they fancy, provided said nonsense is conveyed in a low-key manner. Thus, Carey’s intimidating spouse tracks her all the way to Tennessee and, upon finding her on stage at a bar’s amateur night, is shamed into giving up his pursuit by her touching lyrics, while wounded Carter realizes—long after the audience has—that the trip wasn’t about curing his brother, but about his own healing. As Arrested Development once sang in a song that shares this film’s title, “Take me to another place…”