David and Disney: The Straight Story

My personal highlight of a rather bleak 2020 has been my introduction to David Lynch. Lynch had previously been one of my biggest cinematic blind spots- I simply knew him as ‘The weird guy who made Twin Peaks‘. Over the summer I watched the entirety of Twin Peaks, which served as quite the introduction into the Lynchian world and quickly became one of my favorite series. Since I finished Twin Peaks, I turned to Lynch’s current work: his daily weather reports on YouTube have been a much-appreciated source of consistency in crazy times. I recently committed myself to filling in the gaps of my movie fandom, particularly focusing on a number of 80s and 90s movies that had eluded me. One night, while browsing Disney+ for a classic Disney movie, I found a film that wasn’t a classic. In fact, I’d never even heard of it. I’d found a 1999 live-action Disney film called The Straight Story. My mind went something like this: “Let’s see if anyone I know is involved. Wait, really? DAVID LYNCH made a Disney movie?”. I had to find out what this was. How did David Lynch, of all people, make a film for Disney? It seemed like a match made in Hell. What I watched turned out to be anything but.

The Straight Story adapts the true story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a man who, in his 70s, with eyesight too poor and legs too weak to drive, embarked on a months-long riding lawn mower trek in 1994 to see his ailing brother a few states away. Farnsworth brings Alvin Straight to life beautifully; everyone’s seen a stubborn old curmudgeon character in movies, but Alvin is something more. There’s a matter-of-factness to Farnsworth’s delivery that elevates Alvin beyond a character archetype and makes him feel like the real person he was. Entertainment Weekly described Farnsworth’s portrayal of Alvin as “sweetly stubborn”, as apt a description as there could be. Alvin frequently turns down offers of help from those around him in the most polite means possible. At the beginning of the film, Alvin suffers a fall in his home and is advised to use a walker by his doctor. Instead, he decides to use two canes instead of his one. Alvin appreciates the help of others, but insists on doing things himself at every turn. He’s kind to others and graciously accepts their hospitality, but when it comes to the things that are truly important to him, he has to do it himself. Alvin makes things more difficult than they need to be, but he becomes easier to understand and sympathize with as he reveals more about his character throughout the film. Farnsworth’s performance is informed by his own struggles- he was suffering from prostate cancer during filming that had spread to his bones, causing partial paralysis in his legs. When Alvin struggles to stand or walk on his deteriorating legs throughout the film, Farnsworth is hardly acting. After receiving a Best Actor Oscar nomination, Farnsworth would commit suicide the following year as his condition worsened, making The Straight Story his final performance.

The Straight Story‘s premise is one that seems like it could only happen in a movie, and the fact that Straight’s story is true lends the film a realism unseen in most of Lynch’s work. In fact, devotion to realism was of utmost importance to Lynch and writers Mary Sweeney (a frequent Lynch collaborator whom he would go on to marry) and John Roach. At the premiere, Lynch said he was attracted by the emotion in Sweeney and Roach’s script and that he had unexpectedly fallen in love with the story. The film was independently shot in sequence, including at various stops on Straight’s path from Iowa to Wisconsin. Lynch considers The Straight Story his most experimental film for this reason; it’s no surprise that an experimental filmmaker considers his sole family-friendly studio film experimental compared to his other work. The decision to shoot in sequence along Alvin’s actual path makes his trek truly feel like an adventure. He encounters all sorts of people on his journey, all strangers, and is largely met with kindness. Lynch stressed the importance of casting actors from between Minneapolis and Chicago, citing their knowledge of the area as a key factor in the film’s authenticity. As someone who grew up and still lives in a rural area, Lynch’s depiction felt very accurate to my experiences. In these small towns, everybody knows everybody. In his hometown of Laurens, Iowa, Alvin knows everyone and everyone knows Alvin. As he begins his journey, most of the town sees him ride down its main street, and those who don’t undoubtedly hear about it. The strangers Alvin meets on his journey are glad to help, whether it’s offering him a seat at the fire, a place to stay or a ride to his destination. Lynch, Sweeney and Roach capture the best of rural America, and it gives the movie a sweetness from start to finish. The film’s environment is also bolstered by a wonderful score from frequent Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti. His dark, haunting Twin Peaks compositions are nowhere to be found here; in their place is a folksy fiddle-based score. Angelo, of course, still finds many moments to let his piano skills shine and it is predictably beautiful. The Straight Story, in every conceivable way, nails the atmosphere that it’s going for, and it’s one of the film’s greatest strengths.

*Before I go any further, I should issue a spoiler warning. This film may be 21 years old, but it’s extremely underseen and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone. You can trust that I’m giving it the highest of recommendations. If you have Disney+, please watch it.*

As discussed, The Straight Story shines in Alvin’s interactions with strangers. He has three standout moments in this regard, and I’d like to touch on each of them. Early in the film, Alvin passes a young female hitchhiker on the road. That night, he makes camp and the hitchhiker stumbles upon his camp. He offers her a seat by the fire and gives her a ‘weiner’ to roast. The girl begins making small talk, asking Alvin about himself. He reveals he and his deceased wife had 14 children, but only 7 that made it past infancy. After asking the girl about her family and not getting a response, Alvin deduces that the girl is pregnant and has run away from her family. He passes no judgment and doesn’t press any further. After a long silence, she begins to open up about her fears that her family will reject her. Alvin tells a story about a game he played with his children while they were young, with the moral of the game being that everyone is stronger together than apart. He doesn’t say anything more, but the next morning, after she’s left, he sees that she left behind a bundle of sticks to show she took his story to heart. This scene shows how powerful one simple interaction can be, all while enriching Alvin and adding a great deal of characterization to someone who only has one scene.

The film’s two other standout scenes come in the third act when Alvin stays in a small town for a few days to get his mower fixed. In his downtime, Alvin is invited out for a drink by a local elderly man. Alvin no longer drinks, but he tags along and orders a water. The two begin exchanging war stories, and each man’s trauma resurfaces. Alvin reveals that he’d had a drinking problem after returning from the war, just trying to forget. The other veteran tearfully recounts losing all his friends during the war, and Alvin’s memories come flooding back. He remembers those he’d lost by saying “All my buddies’ faces are still young”. Alvin reveals that he’d accidentally killed a fellow American soldier, and that he was the only one who ever knew the truth. Alvin’s scenes by the fire with the runaway girl and in the bar with his fellow veteran demonstrate the film’s maturity, in my opinion, surpassing its G rating and becoming much more than a typical Disney film. Lynch never shies away from showing that life can be difficult, and these scenes highlight it best. The third standout scene comes a few moments later as Alvin negotiates down the price of his mower’s repair after two brothers fix it. Alvin reveals his difficult relationship with his brother Lyle; the two were inseparable growing up but fell out in their later years. Alvin laments the loss of a key relationship in his life and hopes to rekindle it before it’s too late. His story of brotherhood strikes a chord with the two brothers, again showing how important a seemingly innocuous interaction with a stranger can be. The central ideas touched on in The Straight Story truly elevate it beyond a typical Disney live-action film. Alvin may be breaking down, nearing the end of his life, but with his age comes experience. He’s seen so much in his life, be it war, the loss of a spouse, the losses of children and grandchildren or a falling-out with his closest confidant. He may seem like a stubborn old man, but his experiences touch everyone he comes in contact with on his journey.

Alvin finally reaches Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who has moved back home in the few months since his stroke. After such a long journey, most films would pay off in a grandiose manner, but such spectacle would be doing this story a disservice. Life doesn’t often supply us with moments ripped straight out of the movies, so that isn’t what Lynch gives us. Instead, Alvin greets his brother on his front porch and the two have a seat, enjoying a quiet moment. With a glance at the mower, Lyle asks if Alvin made the long journey just to see him, and Alvin simply replies “I did, Lyle” in the film’s final line. Silence washes over as both brothers begin tearing up and the film comes to a close. It’s a fittingly low-key ending for a low-key film, and it does what this film does best: capture beauty out of simplicity.

Disney purchased the distribution rights for The Straight Story after a successful showing at the Cannes Film Festival and the film released in October 1999. It was a critical hit and Farnsworth achieved a great deal of awards buzz, but the film flopped financially, only grossing $6 million against its $10 million budget. In the 21 years since, it has largely been lost to time. As I mentioned in the intro, I hadn’t even heard of this film until this year. It’s a historical outlier in Lynch’s filmography and in Disney’s history. There has been no effort to keep the film relevant since its release; as a physical media collector, I searched for a Blu-Ray copy of The Straight Story immediately after finishing it, but quickly found out that it was only made available on DVD domestically, with a few foreign markets manufacturing Blu-Ray Discs. It’s hard to come by physically and is dwarfed by the many franchises that dominate Disney+. It’s a surprise to me that the film is even available on Disney+, but I’m thankful for it. Films should be preserved, and it saddens me that this one hasn’t been better taken care of. It’s evident while watching the film and in my research that all parties involved had a passion for this film. The passion could be felt in the script, Lynch’s direction and all the performances. Farnsworth went so far as to call Lynch the best director he’d ever worked for, high praise for the director and the film as a whole. I hope more people discover The Straight Story in the coming years; it’s simply too special to be stranded in its time. I hope it can develop a following with the same passion as the people who made it had.

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