With her directorial debut, All We Had, Katie Holmes is the latest Hollywood performer to try to de-glam herself in order to play a down-in-the-dumps working-class character, a move always fraught with the threat of merely exposing a successful Hollywood star’s condescending view of a lower-class lifestyle. Thankfully, Holmes is less interested in rubbing misery in our faces than in trying to locate the moments of emotional connection that help keep people like her character going.
In the film’s early stages, Rita (Holmes) and her daughter, Ruthie (Stefania Owen), are seen fleeing from a boyfriend’s home—the unfortunate end result, as Ruthie informs us via voiceover, of yet another in a line of Rita’s failed relationships—and running into all sorts of problems as they try to survive without a roof over their head, from an automobile breakdown to lack of money. Soon, though, they find a good Samaritan in Marty (Richard Kind), a diner owner who charitably hires them both as employees even after catching them trying to dine and dash. Eventually, things begin to look up for them, especially after Rita gets involved with a real-estate agent (Mark Consuelos) who sets them up with a house, but then the housing crisis hits them both, setting up a new round of complications for the mother and daughter.
On the basis of All We Had, Holmes doesn’t have an especially interesting visual sensibility, and she isn’t helped by a messy screenplay—by Josh Boone and Jill Killington, based on Annie Weatherwax’s novel—that over-packs the film with dramatic incident, thus leaving certain plot threads and impressions feeling underdeveloped. When Ruthie says that high school was a lot harder than she expected, one realizes we’ve seen so little of her travails for that line to resonate as much as it should.
But Rita and Ruthie’s relationship is the heart of All We Had, and Holmes observes both characters clearly and directs herself and Owen beautifully. Owen, in particular, exudes a convincing wise-beyond-her-years weariness—especially as she sees her mother lapsing into her old addictive habits when the stresses begin to pile up again—that occasionally melts into wild-eyed wonder at the possibilities their newly settled lifestyle can potentially afford her. As for Holmes, her usual girlish voice is fitting for a character who may not be especially bright, but is well-meaning in her attempts to secure a better future for her daughter than her own troubled foster-care-ridden upbringing. The character encapsulates Holmes’s film as a whole: more earnest than remarkable, but with its heart in the right place.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13—24.