by Rob Gonsalves
Matthew Bright's 1999 follow-up to 'Freeway' was never supposed to be 'Freeway 2.'Conceived as the middle film of a projected trilogy of modern-day Grimm tales, the movie was shot, and initially promoted, as Trickbaby. In some countries, the movie went out as Confessions of a Trickbaby; for its American video release -- yup, this was another Bright project that swerved ignominiously around a theatrical launch -- it was christened Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trickbaby. The star and associate producer, Natasha Lyonne, expressed her disappointment that the film, which she'd felt "passionate" about, had been tossed onto video shelves looking like some cheapjack Freeway sequel instead of a separate entity with its own vibe, personality, and merits. The result, of course, was that many unsympathetic reviewers carped that Freeway 2 had nothing to do with Freeway. Well, duh.
"A worthy and unfairly derided follow-up (not a 'sequel')."
Trickbaby, as I'll call it out of respect for Bright and Lyonne, does have at least three things in common with its predecessor. It plumbs, once again, a creaky fable (in this case, "Hansel and Gretel") and modernizes it out the yin-yang; it displays, once again, Matthew Bright's stock in trade, pitch-black wit co-existing amiably with genuine shafts of compassion; and it provides, once again, a meaty role for a young, intelligent, hungry actress. In this case, "hungry" doesn't only describe Lyonne's appetite for a challenging, star-making role; Lyonne plays Crystal (aka "White Girl"), a bulimic who stuffs her face and promptly deposits each meal into the nearest toilet. By my count, Trickbaby offers at least five vomiting scenes before the 30-minute mark. Two ways to respond to this: either "Okay, we get it," or, as I choose to read it, the writer-director and star's strenuous desire to take all the romance out of bulimia. Half of the opening credits unfold over a lengthy shot of our heroine ralphing, belching, coughing, and puking some more into the commode in her jail cell. I felt that this was Lyonne's way of making the two-finger diet look extremely uncool and gross to any teenage girls who happen to rent this.
Lyonne deglamorizes pretty much everything else she does here, too. Her performance and Reese Witherspoon's (as the anti-heroine Vanessa in Freeway) aren't just apples and oranges; they're apples and, oh, pizza or something. Approaching the role of Crystal, who's been sent up for 25 years for trying to sell some of her mother's crack, Lyonne must have realized that the part as written could've come off as one of those sullen, dangerously cool bad grrls, something like Eliza Dushku's Faith on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that might strike impressionable viewers as someone to emulate. Or maybe that was never Lyonne's game plan; whatever her intentions, I think only the most inattentive viewer could look at Crystal and conclude that anyone would want to be like her. In a bravely rumpled and sometimes downright ugly performance, Lyonne makes Crystal a realistically damaged specimen as dead-eyed and cynical as Vanessa Lutz was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Crystal is, if you must, the Louise in the movie's scheme of things; the Thelma is a deranged Hispanic/Apache serial killer who calls herself Cyclona (Maria Celedonio) and drools over fantasies of eating pussy while huffing spray-paint fumes. (Another link to Freeway: while in the joint, Vanessa befriended a spacey lesbian huffer, played by Brittany Murphy as only Brittany Murphy could play a spacey lesbian huffer.) Cyclona is headed for a life sentence (we learn she killed her entire family -- not without provocation, we later also learn), and she's haunted by visions of a savior -- Sister Gomez, who lives in Mexico and could provide sanctuary to Cyclona and Crystal if they escape from the rehab center before they're routed to real prison. They do (no spoiler there; otherwise there wouldn't be a movie), and here Bright borrows from another disreputable genre, the prisoners-on-the-lam flick. (It's also tangentially a road movie, so I suppose the video title Freeway 2 is microscopically justifiable for that reason.)
Trickbaby takes its time getting around to the "Hansel and Gretel" parallels (well, Freeway wasn't wholly dominated by the "Little Red Riding Hood" motif, either). Our heroines do a considerable amount of damage en route to Mexico; there's a fairly distressing home-invasion scene, capped by a "what the fuck have you done?" scene by a shocked Crystal that manages to outdo a similar scene in From Dusk Till Dawn (the scene where George Clooney returns to the motel to find the female hostage raped and splattered across the bed). Catching a ride on a boxcar, the girls also run into a salacious crackhead hobo; the weirdness of this passage of the film is that the crackhead is (A) played by Michael T. Weiss of Freeway and (B) named Larry, as he was in Freeway, only without the white-trash dye job and with a hellacious new walrus mustache. Is this meant to be the same Larry we last saw hooting in the back of a police car in the first act of Freeway? Or is he intended as a stand-in for all "Larrys," all no-account jerks who live to fuck with girls just for the sheer priapic sport of it? I read him as a little of both, and in any event, he soon finds that Crystal and Cyclona aren't Vanessa; they're not going to biff him on the head with little fists and amuse him with how cute they are when they're pissed -- they have knives and shit.
Crystal and Cyclona are a little -- okay, a lot -- rougher around the edges than was Vanessa. But Lyonne and Maria Celedonio pour such heart and soul into these outwardly soulless, heartless girls that we recognize them as human even when their actions appall us. (If you want an example of the mystery of fine acting, riddle yourself why we continue to empathize with and stay interested in Cyclona even after her vibrator scene, a scene that would be infamous if the movie were better known.) Cyclona is softened by her childlike faith in Sister Gomez and the purity of their quest. Crystal gets us in her corner by being the yeah-whatever voice of jaded reason, the stained fingers snatching the string of Cyclona's helium balloon of consciousness whenever it threatens to float off into the ozone. Tucked away subtly into Lyonne's characterization, though, is a sense of damaged, stunted girlhood. Crystal was once a little girl who loved to eat until guilt was attached to appetite; toss teenage body-loathing into the mix and you have a complex web of self-destruction and destruction, a girl who hates herself and figures nothing she does means anything anyway, so, fuck it, let's do some crimes. Lyonne also knows what to do with a line like "Blowing your dad definitely qualifies as some memorable shit. I know. I been there." She delivers this with a rueful smile that speaks volumes about the self-protective membrane such girls must place over memories of abuse.
Eventually the girls reach Mexico, where they do indeed locate Sister Gomez, played by Vincent Gallo -- no, you haven't just gone insane; Vincent Gallo -- as a fluttery-voiced visionary nun who takes the starving orphans of Tijuana into her dining room for pastries and candy. This, you'll note, is also where the film reaches its fairy-tale mode (there are intimations of it earlier, when the girls leave a trail of crack rocks in the forest). Sister Gomez offers to "feed" Crystal's "demon," curing her of her anger and bulimia; Crystal believes this, not because she's gullible but because she feels the metaphorical truth that her rage and her eating disorder are connected. For Cyclona, Sister Gomez promises to rid her of the voices in her head. All of this comes at a price, though, and Crystal finds herself working the street, hustling stupid guys for services she doesn't provide. It all leads to a John Woo-style climax wherein Crystal discovers Sister Gomez's perfidy, introduces her to her own oven, and blazes away at a decadent party of pervs with a gun in each hand. I'm not sure what to think about Sister Gomez, yet another case of crossdresser-as-psycho, perhaps justifiable in that the girls are led to trust her only to discover that she's just some guy -- and in this movie, guys spell trouble (yet, as usual, cops aren't demonized and even a clownish horndog lawyer played with brio by David Alan Grier comes off as oddly likable).
Trickbaby has been derided as post-Tarantino trash unworthy of the Freeway label; it's a cheap way for critics to assert that they enjoy Ebert-approved pulp like Freeway, but harder-edged pulp like Trickbaby that makes them think about bulimia, incest, child pornography, and the inequities of the American justice system is just, well, too much. Better to just slag it off as a bad sequel and move on. This is as unfair as it is stupid. Trickbaby doesn't deserve to be judged as "a Freeway sequel"; it works on its own snarly, baroque terms as what I hope will be the middle panel of that trilogy. I eagerly await Freeway 3, or whatever the hell Kushner-Locke ends up calling it, as long as they finance it.Why stop at a trilogy, though? I wouldn't mind if Matthew Bright went on making these art-house/drive-in rewrites of Grimm until he ran out of fairy tales to fracture or gutsy actresses willing to star in them.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=2614&reviewer=416
originally posted: 01/06/07 13:45:37