Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Running on Empty

So I mentioned that I watched Running on Empty over the weekend, and that it's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive collection. In other words, I'm comfortable doing a full-length post on the movie even though I don't think it's coming up on TV any time soon.

River Phoenix plays Danny Pope, a high-school kid who at the start of the movie is on the baseball team somewhere in Florida. He goes home, and finds that there are two dark sedans with two men in them tailing him, and staying a good distance away from the house. Obviously, he knows that this means danger, as he takes the long way around to the house, and gets his kid brother Harry and a few belongings, before waiting for their parents by the side of the road somewhere on the parents' way home from work.

There's a reason for the danger. Dad Arthur (Judd Hirsch) and Mom Annie (Christine Lahti) were radicals back in the Vietnam War era (Arthur even points out that he was a "red diaper baby", somebody whose parents were Communists and raised him from birth to be a Communist), to the point that they bombed a napalm plant. Their intention was just to case damage to the building and stop the war effort, but in fact there was a janitor in the building, and the janitor suffered severe injuries as a result of the bombing. For the past 15 years, the Popes have been running from the law. (Why they'd bring another child into all of this is a good question, and one that Annie does mention briefly once before dropping the subject.) Every few months, when it looks like the feds are closing in, the Popes have to create new identities and move again.

This time they move to New Jersey, where Danny takes music as one of his electives because he's always been pretty good on the piano. In fact, he's good enough that he comes to the attention of his music teacher, Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley). Phillips takes an interest in Danny's well-being, something which is obviously a big problem for his parents, especially for Dad. Dad is even more worried than Mom about the prospect of attention to Danny meaning that somebody will figure out who his parents are. There's also the problem that when the kids grow up, they may want to strike out on their own. In particular, that issue is beginning to come to a head because Mr. Phillips suggests that Danny is talented enough to be able to attend the prestigious Juilliard School of Music.

Meanwhile, Mom is having her own conflicts. She's been wondering whether it's finally time to give up, although there's the question of what's going to happen to Harry in that case. Danny might be old enough to go off to college; Harry is in no way old enough to be independent. In addition, there's her past catching up to her in the form of an old contact from the extremist group showing up and wanting help in planning a bank robbery to raise funds for the struggle.

And then there's poor Danny. He loves his parents, and doesn't want to abandon them. But there's the possibility of being able to go on with his piano studies. More than that, when he visits Mr. Phillips' house to practice on the grand piano, he meets Phillips' daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton), a classmate of Danny's. He falls in love with her, but the feeling isn't necessarily mutual. Lorna senses that there's something chaotic going on, what with Danny obviously keeping so much secret from her, and she doesn't know if she can love that. But can Danny really risk telling her the truth?

Running on Empty is a movie filled with excellent performances. River Phoenix earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, even though he's really the lead, and this movie shows what a tragedy it was when he died a few years later at the age of 23. Lahti, who would go on to moderate success starring in the TV show Chicago Hope and an otherwise steady career, gets a standout scene when she sees her father (Steven Hill) for the first time in 15 years, to tell Dad that she wants the grandparents to take custody of Danny so he can go to Juilliard. (Hill only shows up for this one scene, but makes the most of it.) Judd Hirsch does well in what might be his best film work outside of Ordinary People, beginning to crack in his own way -- different from the way Lahti's character does -- as he tries to become more stridently the leader of a terrorist cell that's really just a family. Martha Plimpton also does fine in a role that's difficult in its own way even if it's not as obviously difficult as what the family members have to display.

Running on Empty is a movie I can strongly recommend.

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