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Reviews - The New York Observer

On the Road with Alice—Rednecks and R.V.’s Abound
by Andrew Sarris

A. Dean Bell’s What Alice Found, qualifies as the latest example of an independent film of limited means and unlimited artistry that has made this year of moviegoing so unpredictably invigorating. It seems we’re passing through a period in which low-budget productions shot on digital video provide more luminous, lifelike characters, compelling drama and nuanced feelings than what’s on offer in most mega-productions with big-star cachet.

Yet What Alice Found is hardly a cult B-picture from the bygone days of double features—the acting and writing are much too good for that, and the grown-up sex on display is explicit without being degrading or exploitational. Still, as the title suggests, there’s a fairy-tale quality to this rite-of-passage adventure of menaced innocence that evokes a darker Alice in Wonderland, a tale of malignant mysteries on the open highway traversed by cars, trucks and R.V.’s (recreational vehicles), the latter carrying the restless spirit of the narrative.

When we first see Alice (played by the 25-year-old newcomer Emily Grace), she’s already in transit, filling up her tank at a gas station. We later learn that she’s driving away from her unhappy home in New Hampshire and her depressed, divorced single mother (Jane Lincoln Taylor). While on the road, Alice never calls home but does keep in contact with a girlfriend named Julie, who’s already in Miami, the destination that Alice is heading for (she plans to study marine biology at the University of Miami).

On the road, Alice encounters a car full of rednecks shouting obscenities, but far from being fearful, she defiantly gives them the finger as they speed past her. Sufficiently shaken by the experience, she checks whether they’re waiting for her at the next rest stop. When she returns to her car from the bathroom, she finds that one of her tires has been punctured.

It’s at this point that Alice is befriended by two seeming Good Samaritans, Sandra (Judith Ivey) and Bill (Bill Raymond), a middle-aged couple traveling about in their R.V. ("everywhere it doesn’t snow"). They tell Alice that they saw a rough-looking young man lurking suspiciously around her car, and at one point saw him stoop down—that could’ve been when he punctured her tire, Sandra and Bill suggest. Alice—who is now truly alarmed by the dangers facing her on the road—is grateful for their attention, particularly when Bill changes her tire without being asked, while the very talkative Sandra keeps trying to calm her down. Sandra suggests that she follow their R.V. on the highway, just in case she’s being stalked by the man who punctured her tire. Alice agrees to follow them, but when her car completely breaks down, and the R.V. disappears up ahead, Alice is seized with panic—especially after a car stops ahead and a tall man emerges out of the dark night. She flees to the bushes on the side of the road an cowers there until she sees the R.V. returning. Bill and Sandra emerge to confront the stranger at a distance and tell him that his services aren’t needed; both the stranger and Alice notice that Bill is packing a gun. The stranger departs, and Alice hesitantly accepts Sandra’s offer to travel with them until she reaches her destination.

Of course, Sandra and Bill are not exactly the Samaritans they pretend to be; if they were, there would be no movie, and certainly no suspense. But who are they exactly? This is where all the nuance comes in: Alice isn’t exactly what she pretends to be, either.

As Alice enters the world of R.V. families and the truck drivers who share their rest stops, she gradually realizes that Bill procures male customers for Sandra in an orderly, business-like fashion. But Bill and Sandra make no effort to recruit Alice for their "business." Rather, it is she who jumps at the chance to make more money than she’s ever dreamed of in her "honest" job as a waitress.

The picture could go in so many disastrous directions from this point on, with all the characters demolished in the sleazy wreckage. A gun is flashed, a shot is fired, a great many lies are exposed, but Sandra, Bill and Alice emerge not as a newfound family exactly, nor as villains and victims, but as three ever-vulnerable human beings doing the best they can to survive.

In this extraordinary season, it seems that every other picture is blessed with what the critics herald as Oscar-worthy performances. What Alice Found may never even be seen by most of the academy’s voters—alas, they’ll be missing a beautifully harmonized trio of performers in Ms. Ivey, Mr. Raymond and Ms. Grace. These actors invest their beleaguered characters with the dignity, strength and resilience to live their lives of frantic desperation without surrendering to self-pity or self-hatred. And if that’s not a form of heroism, I don’t know what is.