Sunday, October 20, 2019

Ulee's Gold

After Peter Fonda died back in August, TCM pre-empted some of their programming to do a tribute night to him. This included the movie Ulee's Gold.

Fonda plays Ulee Jackson, who at the start of the movie is taking care of some of his beehives with a couple of seasonal workers somewhere in the swamps of Florida. (The movie was filmed on location in Gulf County, FL, which is one of the rural counties in the panhandle.) It's tough work, having left Ulee with back pain and a looming deadline to produce a large supply of tupelo honey in the next few weeks.

It's not just business that makes life difficult for Ulee. He returns from the swamp to pick up his granddaughter Penny from elementary school. Ulee lives with Penny and Penny's elder sister Casey (Jessica Biel). Neither of the parents are around, as dad Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in prison, and mom is who knows where. There's no grandma, either, since she died several years earlier.

Life is about to get a heck of a lot more complicated for them. Ulee gets a call from his son, who tells dad that he's learned his wife Helen (Christine Dunford) is in need of help, having a serious drug problem and living somewhere around Orlando. She's hanging out with a bad crowd, and could Ulee help her? Not that either of the granddaughters are thrilled with the prospect of seeing Mom again.

Still, Ulee brings Helen home despite the fact that she's going through drug withdrawal. The familiy is lucky that they're renting out a house across the street to Connie (Patricia Richardson), a nurse who can help out even though she points out that Helen really ought to be in a hospital. But if the physical situation is bad enough, there's about to be a much bigger problem for the family.

When Jimmy committed teh hold-up that got him in prison, he found an extra bag of money. He took it for himself and hid it somewhere where Ulee keeps his bees. The other two robbers, Eddie (Steven Flynn) and Ferris (Dewey Weber), escaped going to prison and were in fact the ones who were taking care of Helen when Ulee came to pick her up. And Helen, during all that drug use, told Eddie and Ferris about that bag of money. So naturally, they want it.

Ulee's Gold is an excellent little drama. I think one of the things that I liked so much about it is how much all of these characters seem like real people, who are trying to muddle their way through some extremely difficult problems. I wrote once many years ago that the production values of historical dramas tend to look a lot better in more recent movies than in Hollywood backlot-constrained films. But when it comes to writing realistic characters, a good modern movie -- probably because of the lack of the Production Code -- can do it so much better than the old Studio Era movies. And Ulee's Gold is one of those movies that does it well.

Fonda is outstanding and rightly got an Oscar nomination. Richardson is good too, and the children are normal and not Hollywood obnoxious in any way. The location shooting is also a huge plus. I mentioned recently how much I liked the production design of At Close Range in showing the rural white working class. But I think Ulee's Gold gets it even better, which is saying something.

It's really good that Fonda got that Oscar nomination, because I think that otherwise Ulee's Gold would have been forgotten. That would have been a huge shame, because Ulee's Gold is a movie that really deserves to be seen.

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