The Straight Story (1999, dir. David Lynch)
Alvin Straight is an aging man living in Iowa when he suffers a fall that leaves him barely mobile and relying on two canes to stand up. His daughter Rose attempts to care for him but cannot fully due to her intellectual disability. Alvin takes up a seemingly foolish quest after receiving a phone call from his estranged brother, Lyle’s stroke. He gets it in his mind that he will drive his riding lawn mower across Iowa and into Wisconsin to reunite with Lyle. During this journey, he meets many people who come to represent times in our lives or certain philosophical viewpoints.
It is a rare occasion to read in the opening credits of a film: “Walt Disney Pictures presents a film by David Lynch.” In addition, it could surprise someone familiar with Lynch’s body of work to see a G-rating attached to one of his pictures. Yet, everything about the film is so saturated with the director’s particular sense of character and the world that it feels completely Lynch. In recent years, David Lynch has become singularly associated with the dark noir horror elements of his works, such as Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. However, I would argue that empathy is a major component of his work.
While characters in Lynch’s films are often strange and off kilter, I never get the sense that he is laughing at them. The more you absorb his work the more you see his deep love of people who are considered Other. Fire Walk With Me is all about building empathy for a victim, yet in the television series, he still shows empathy for the killer by revealing how he too is a victim since childhood. Lynch never dismisses what he considered morally wrong, but he is willing to listen to characters and understand them.
The Straight Story is never to the extremes of the previously mentioned films, but it does feature a protagonist who is operating outside the standards of his community. He has a daughter with a very obvious intellectual disability but enough detail is shared over the course of the film that we see she is a complex, layered, and beautiful character. She is not there to invoke sympathy or to be simply weird. The encounters between Alvin and others also go in ways that don’t follow expected routes. A campfire shared with a teenage runaway could easily have ended with Alvin waking up the next morning to find his belongings stolen. Instead, he wakes up and the teenager has left a reminder of a conversation they had about the support family can bring.
The Straight Story is a feel good movie but not in a pat, maudlin way. It’s a meditation on the positives and negatives of aging, how the elderly sometimes yearn for their youth while treasuring their experiences others. I also believe the film is reflective of many of David Lynch’s personal spiritual beliefs. At first glance, this may seem like an outlier to the director’s work of the last thirty years, but after you view it I believe it will become apparent that it is right at home.