LITTLE ROCK More than a year after it won the Charles B. Pierce Award for Best Arkansas Film at the 2008 Little Rock Film Festival (it won several other awards at the multitude of film festivals it graced last year), Vincent Insalaco's War Eagle, Arkansas gets a theatrical release this week. If you missed it during the LRFF - or want to see it again - here's your chance.
I've identified it as the producer's movie, which is a violation ofthe usual convenient fiction we employ of identifying the director as the author of a given movie. In this case it seems appropriate since the story began with Insalaco and the real-life friendship between his son, Vincent III, and Tim Ballany, a young man who's confined to a wheelchair. Screenwriter Graham Gordy, a Conway native, transposed the story to the titular village, imagining a friendship between socially inept but athletically gifted Enoch(Luke Grimes) and wheelchair-bound Sam "Wheels" Macon (Dan McCabe), a profanely witty free spirit with cerebral palsy.
Enoch is a promising high school baseball player with a debilitating speech defect; Wheels enjoys the freedom of the irretrievable misfit, a kid who necessarily operates outside the high school hierarchy. Enoch can't talk, Wheels can't shut up - together they make almost a whole personality, together they function.
But these are kids with problems: Enoch is resentful of his demanding grandfather Pop (Brian Dennehy), who has transferred his own thwarted dreams of baseball glory to the kid. He's devoted to Wheels, who sometimes repays his loyalty with an acid-tongued verbosity that's often as cruel as it is truth-telling.
This core relationship is strained when Enoch is presented with opportunities unavailable to Wheels. First he gets - with his friend's help - a girlfriend in Abby (Misti Traya). Later, the prospect of a baseball scholarship to an out-of-state college looms.
Wheels can't help but resent Enoch's good luck, and suffering in silence just isn't his way. But he can't come right out and tell his friend he's jealous of his sound body and smoldering Elvisian good looks, now can he? Certainly not in War Eagle, where approved male activities include watching wrasslin' on TV and picking fights with the village lout (a small but accurate turn by Lynsee Provence, who filled a similar role in Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories).
Salted through the drama are a host of fine character actors including Dennehy; Mare Winningham as Belle, Enoch's ever-mediating mom; Mary Kay Place as Wheels' hardworking, long-suffering mother; and James McDaniel as Jack, a black videostore manager who aspires to start his own church in the nearly all-white community.
Setting the film in the idyllic rural community of War Eagle is a smart move - we can understand why Enoch loves the place and why Wheels feels trapped by it. Enoch's ultimate choice isn't conventional and may leave a portion of the audience dissatisfied, but it feels emotionally true if not necessarily smart.
My opinion of the movie hasn't changed over the months - it's an example of tough-minded, well-executed independent filmmaking rooted in the specific circumstances of credible human characters that requires no special dispensation for being locally produced. It's a damn good movie, and everyone associated with it has a right to be proud.
MovieStyle, Pages 35, 40 on 06/12/2009