The Green Oak Guardian-makes a virtue of its low budget
Director: Lana Read
Cast: Abi Van Andel, Houston Rhines, Duffy Hudson, Vernon G. Wells, Layla Cushman
Running time: 93 mins
Directed by Lana Read, this low budget indie romcom has a strong hook and plenty of smalltown charm, but ultimately stumbles in the storytelling, seemingly unsure of which story it wants to tell. That’s a shame, because it’s easy to see that a few tweaks here and there could have made all the difference.
Set and shot in the real-life small town of Carrollton, Ohio, the film centres on single mother and comic book creator Jo McSween (Abi Van Andel), whose successful superhero character The Green Oak Guardian has attracted the attention of Hollywood. Enter playboy actor Grayson Kane (Houston Rhines), whose agent (the film’s scriptwriter, Duane Abel) orders him to Carrollton ahead of the impending film shoot, in order to charm the Guardian’s creator into publicly approving his casting.
However, Grayson faces an uphill struggle, not least because Jo has allowed the world outside Carrollton to believe that “JT McSween” (her pen name) is a crotchety old man, so Grayson initially pours the charm on her kind-hearted grandfather (Duffy Hudson) instead. In addition, Jo’s not at all sure that Grayson’s playboy image is a fitting role model for her starstruck young daughter Audrey (Charlotte Teall).
The real-life location (including, one assumes, real life locals as actors) adds an immediate charm to the film, and it’s abundantly clear that everyone involved saw this as a sort of local labour of love. As a result, there’s a surface likeability that carries the film a fair way, at least in terms of the performances and characters.
If anything, however, that’s part of the problem – Rhines’ Grayson, in particular, is way too likeable from the start, immediately scuppering the potential of the film’s initial hook, that of a bad boy actor in need of redemption, being won over by smalltown values and a good-hearted woman, etc. Instead, Jo is won over pretty fast, meaning there’s no real conflict or tension.
That’s a script issue throughout the film, as any obstacles tend to disappear almost as soon as they crop up, whether it’s the deception involving Jo’s true identity or a trouble-making leading lady (Layla Cushman) once the film crew arrive in town. The resulting effect is that the script feels like it’s constantly changing direction, as if it can’t make up its mind where the story should be if it can’t do the bad boy actor finding redemption thing.
Another problem is that scenes are frequently allowed to run too long, with the actors very obviously standing around and improvising reactions to what’s just happened while waiting for the director to call cut. Unfortunately, they’re not very good at improvising, so they usually just repeat the last line of dialogue and chuckle to themselves, in painfully amateurish fashion.
It’s also fair to say that the film’s two key comedy moments end up falling flat. Both have potential – one involves Grayson’s encounter with a “beefy raccoon”, the other involves a spot of mistaken identity with his stunt double – but they’re badly staged, poorly directed and shoddily edited to boot.
On the whole, the film makes a virtue of its low budget, though it does occasionally slip up in that department, most notably when it comes to depicting a tragic firefighting flashback with a shot of an actor gamely leaping over a not-very-high bonfire. The scene ends up provoking a grin at the sheer chutzpah of director Read for trying to pull that off, which would be fine, if the scene in question wasn’t meant to be so sombre and upsetting.
On the plus side, the two leads do at least have a decent amount of chemistry, meaning the film just about succeeds as a sweet romance, even if some of its other ambitions fall short.