Rambling Rose (1991)
Written Calder Willingham
Directed by Martha Coolidge
The role of women in Southern culture is a complex one, and as a white man, I will not be able to adequately convey what it is like from my perspective. Rambling Rose, though, is a film that gets somethings right but so much else wrong, like problematically wrong. I sat stunned within the first few moments of this movie, and throughout the rest of it at how tone-deaf and overly melodramatic so much of the story becomes. The female character at the center of the picture really has no voice, and instead, the narrative is shaped by an adolescent boy that lusts after Rose. There’s an attempt to have him learn a lesson about women, but it’s muddied with troublesome archaic thinking.
The adult Buddy (John Heard) is driving home in the early 1970s to his childhood home after getting news about an old family friend, Rose (Laura Dern). She was a troubled young woman who young Buddy’s (Lukas Haas) parents allowed to come to live with them to help her get a better start on adult life. Buddy’s mother (Diane Ladd) sees the best in Rose and seeks to help her find her way. Daddy (Robert Duvall), on the other hand, is conflicted with aiding Rose while feeling himself lusting over her. Rose stumbles through a series of episodes as she tries to get a better handle on herself.
I applaud the filmmaker, Martha Coolidge, for addressing the topic of sex in a time & place of chaste thinking in a very calm & understanding manner. The problem is that the Coolidge doesn’t seem to have a sense of what she wants to say about Rose or women like her. Things happen to Rose that are outrageous and scandalous and the movie sort of moves on to the next incident. By the end of the film, she has been married off, and the voice-over tells us she’ll have three more husbands before finding the right one. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of what any of the third act was supposed to mean or what I was supposed to think about Rose.
Early on, Rose accosts Daddy as the kids hide and watch. He’s into it at first, and we even get some nudity before he regains his sense and absconds Rose. For the rest of the movie, Daddy ping pongs between lusting after her and insisting she leave his home because of her moral failings. He’s yet another character I didn’t get and struggled to understand what the audience is supposed to learn from his reactions. Mother is played beautifully by Diane Ladd, and she is probably the best part of the movie. That said, it feels like she’s being played for a fool at some moments and then wiser than everyone else at others.
There’s a bizarre attempt to make the movie a feminist statement, but it falls completely flat. Mother insists that Rose is looking for love, and it’s implied that Rose was abused by her father for her childhood. When Mother tells off a male physician who insists that Rose be given a hysterectomy because she has nymphomania, the matriarch states that women do not want sex but want love instead. I understand the intent of this statement, but it is so old-fashioned and a kind of archaic wave of feminism that frames sex as something only desired by men. Women enjoy sex too, both gay and straight. Physical intimacy is something almost every person enjoys.
I was ultimately shocked at how similar in tone Rambling Rose was with Dern & Ladd’s previous outing Wild At Heart. They both play exaggerated Southern-fried women, yet Wild At Heart was more tonally consistent than this picture. The framing device of the film speaks a hugely troublesome trope that runs rampant in cinema. This is the privileged person recalling a marginalized person who helped them learn a lesson. The final scene where Rose has died off-screen decades later, and Daddy ruminates that she’s not really dead, she’s all around us is peak pandering saccharine 1990s American cinema.