TOMATO RED (Canada | Ireland/UC/112mins)
Directed by Juanita Wilson. Starring Julia Garner, Jake Weary, Anna Friel, Nick Roux, Douglas M. Griffin
THE PLOT: Sammy (Jake Weary) is fresh out of jail and looking for new friends and a way to spend his weekends. When his newest attempt at making friends leads him to break into a big house, he falls asleep and is awoken by Jamalee (Julia Garner) and her brother Jason (Nick Roux), who do not live in the house, as Sammy first believes. Fascinated by Jamalee and her bright red hair, Sammy agrees to provide security for the siblings, and help them get away from the prejudice of Venus Holler, where they live.
THE VERDICT: Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, ‘Tomato Red’ is written for the screen and directed by Irish filmmaker Juanita Wilson. Wilson’s last film, ‘As if I am Not Here’, dealt with the Bosnian War of the 1990s, and this time she has turned her attention to middle America and its forgotten people.
Jake Weary leads the cast as Sammy, the drifter looking for a place to belong and people that will have him. The character’s problems are fairly easily solved when he meets Jamalee and her family, and other than some brief forays into burglary and anger, Weary does not have a lot to do here. Julia Garner plays Jamalee, and although the character starts off as mysterious and alluring, this is quickly lost, and it is difficult to see just what Sammy sees in her. Anna Friel is the real stand out of ‘Tomato Red’, making Bev – Jamalee and Jason’s mother – cutting and sharp, with a wicked turn of phrase and temper. The rest of the cast features Nick Roux and Douglas M. Griffin.
Juanita Wilson’s screenplay shifts the perspective of the story from Jamalee to Sammy, and in doing so, moves the audience to role of observer in the story, rather than feeling engaged and enthralled. As well as this, there are times when action takes place off screen, and so little explanation is given that the audience finds themselves scrambling to keep up. There are some wonderful turns of phrase in the dialogue, and Bev is a wonderful character, but the way the rest of the roles are written do not really allow the cast to get their teeth into their performances.
As director, Juanita Wilson allows the film to drift for the first hour, and while it is nice to watch these characters interact with one another to an extent, there comes a time when these rather thinly sketched characters fail to hold audience interest. As well as this, the event that kicks everyone into high gear happens too late in the film to rescue the loose and meandering feel that is created on screen, meaning that the pacing is a mess and too loose to be engaging.
In all, ‘Tomato Red’ is a meandering and messy film, but Anna Friel shines as the cutting and smart Bev. A tighter script and stronger narrative arc would have benefitted these characters, as well as stronger direction to make Jamalee, Sammy and Jason truly interesting and engrossing.
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    Irish director Juanita Wilson’s follow-up to her harrowing but powerful Bosnian war debut As If I Am Not There is Tomato Red, another story about troubled lives taken from a foreign perspective.

    Sammy (Jake Weary) is just out of prison. He’s a white trash drifter and his next stop finds him in a small mid-western town looking for someone to identify with. Having a habit of trespassing in people’s houses just to have a look around, he chances upon similar souls Jamalee (Julia Garner) and Jason (Nick Roux) Merridew. They live in a trailer park near their mother Bev (Anna Friel). Jamalee wants to escape the trappings of her life and find fame in Hollywood, much to dismay of her mother. Hanging around town, they find themselves the subject of prejudicial opinions from middle class folk. The family name has a reputation for trouble, so it’s not long before the police come calling, with life-changing results…

    Based on the book by Daniel Woodrell, who also wrote Winter’s Bone and Ride With The Devil, Tomato Red is a reference to the colour of Jamalee’s hair… or maybe just a reference to the dusty desert that the characters find themselves in. The story is one of marginalised lives, much like another film out this week – Trespass Against Us. These characters live on the fringes, looking for a way to escape their humdrum lives and find something better to fight for. It’s an interesting choice of story for Wilson to make. It’s quite a different film from her debut – as a sophomore effort should be. Nobody is going to pigeonhole this director. It has a relatively straight, simple story, but drenched in that sun-baked, dusty world of aimless lives that are common in archetypal smalltown America films. What impresses is the way that Wilson captures the feeling of wanting to escape, but only if the opportunity presents itself. It’s also telling that these characters revert to type and find themselves making the same mistakes again.

    The film doesn’t always work though. Sammy is the lead character, but he isn’t the most interesting of characters to root for. Weary is a bit bland in the lead role. He sells the drifter aspect well, but not so much his character’s motivations. More impressive are Garner and Friel, who make the most of their characters and portray that quiet desperation and yearning, while also accepting their lot in life. The ending is a gut punch and lacks a proper resolution for these characters. Either that or Wilson is making a statement that we’re right back where we started, as the story comes full circle. In a sense, the story of these characters is a circle – a vicious circle at that. They’re not bad people, but they don’t know how to make the right choices in life. Whereas Winter’s Bone had a quiet resolve and power to it, Tomato Red feels like a lesser story from Woodrell. However, Wilson shows a good command of actors and a firm sense of location in her second film. It’ll be curious to see what she comes up with next. ***