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Chester Story, The
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by Chris Parry

"How to make a great 'family film': Simply copy The Chester Story."
5 stars

You people just don't know. You'll never know, until you've done it, how hard it is to get a small independent film onto a movie screen. The writing, the pre-production, the scrounging for money, the running out of money, the casting, the frantic search for a recognizable name, the production itself, the editing, the scrounging for money to finish the thing, the film festival submissions, and finally... if you're REALLY lucky, and really good at what you do... the sale. And that's when the real hard work begins - convincing your distributor that the world needs to see your movie. Well, take it from me, a jaded critic with more bad movies piled around me than good, Outrider Pictures needs to get The Chester Story on as many screens as they can find - RIGHT NOW.

This has been a great year for indie Americana. Earlier this year I was blown away by a little film from the northeast called Nosey Parker, which proceeded to be ignored by the world. Then came the brave look at southern religion that was Screen Door Jesus, a film that was shown on a handful of screens before being put out to pasture. The French chipped in with The Girl From Paris - as good a 'finding yourself in god's country' film as I've seen in some time.

And what has Hollywood given us in all this time? Jeepers Creepers 2, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Celebrity and Bringing Down The House. What was that someone once said about never going broke appealing to the lowest common denominator?

Well The Chester Story doesn't star David Spade or Queen Latifah, but I'm fairly certain that American audiences will forgive it that faux pas, because it is as heartwarming and decent and fun a film as I've seen this year.

The North Carolina town of Chester is the setting for a week that four people will never forget. When the husband of diner waitress Jessie (Andrea Powell) wins the lottery, he goes to the bar and celebrates up a storm with his buddies. In doing so, he gets legless, motherless drunk and walks himself into traffic, managing to get killed in the ensuing car wreck. Also in that wreck are Ray (Robert C. Trveiler), an entertainment lawyer coming home to visit his sick mom, and Megan (Teri Hatcher), a woman looking to surprise her long distance boyfriend, only to find he's the one who is surprised... or rather, he and his new girlfriend.

So when life gives you lemons, what do you make out of them?

Ray and Megan find themselves sharing the outsider's view of the town of Chester, as the law plods through an investigation of the crash and small-town small minds gossip about what went down. Ray offers Megan a lift to the home of her man, they find him less than receptive, and with nowhere else to go, Megan comes home with Ray to meet the family. Bonding and romance ensues.

But across town, the dearly departed is still being mourned by ex-wife Jessie and Charlie (Cody Newton), her son. In a small town, everyone knows everyone's business, so the two groups inevitably encounter one another... will they be at loggerheads, or will something far different occur?

If the above sounds a little syrupy for your tastes... well, you're an ass. I mean, geez, does every film need a 6'4" bald-headed grunter jumping out of a light plane without a parachute? Can we just go 90 minutes without a car chase or Halle Berry taking her top off? Is there no place for family and love and a good old fashioned 'Home for the Holidays'-type story?

Rebecca Bagley Cook has fashioned the kind of script here that most writers will never manage to crank out. Her dialogue is true dialogue - not two people talking, but a conversation taking place. The laughs won't bust your gut, but they'll make you smile. The romance won't make you uncomfortable in your undies, but it'll make you root for the good guys - which in this case means everyone.

There's no villain in this piece. It's not man against man or man against himself, it's man against taking the easy way out. It's a gentle kick up the derriere to get off your patoot and do the things you always wanted to but could never justify.

Teri Hatcher, an actress I never could justify being given regular work in film (or TV, or those damn Radio Shack ads) turned me around here. So much of this film relies on the casual, underplayed but building romance between her character and David C. Treveiler's character that it would have been far easier for one of them to blow it than it must have been to pull this performance off, but pull it off they did, to a level than tells me both Treveiler and Hatcher need to be strongly considered for bigger things.

If I have a complaint about this film at all, it's that Hatcher needs to talk refund with her plastic surgeon, because he's taken a gorgeous canvas and not helped it any. I'm sorry to say something so patently tact-free on a topic that has little to do with the movie at hand, but I spent the first act of this film trying to figure out exactly what happened to Hatcher's formerly perfect features. Teri, seriously, it can be fixed. Call me, I know people.

Aside from that guff, Hatcher is on fire in this film, delivering exactly what's needed, when it's needed. And if Hatcher is en feugo, so is everyone else in the cast, a large slice of praise for which needs to go to the writer/director who made it so. Like Good Will Hunting before it, The Chester Story works almost entirely because the characters are SO DAMN NORMAL. There's no quirky George Utley types in this backwoods locale, no violent criminals, no crazy hillbillys, and but for one or two sharp-tongued gossips (one of which is a Rebecca Bagley Cook cameo), not even a single soul is patently mean.

Think about it, when you walk down the street, do you see people being evil? No, you rarely see evil personified, but in Hollywood movies you'll always see someone being out and out evil, and that doesn't bring you any closer to the characters. Ray and Megan and Ray's family and Megan's apartment building custodian and the kid who just lost his dad and the mistress and the soccer moms of Chester - they're just folks like you and me. They react to adversity like we do. They regret the same things we do. They want the same things we do.

The difference is, by the end of this film, maybe you'll want those things a little harder, and maybe you'll just go out and do something about those regrets.

The Chester Story is a slice of east coast Americana that you could rip apart if you were a die-hard cynic: it's too nice, it's too slow, the cast is mostly nobodies... but I'd counter that by saying it's just nice enough, the pace is deliberate and never boring, and the cast SHOULD be somebodies.

Andrea Powell isn't on the level of Charlize Theron, but I guarantee you she could teach Charlize a thing or two about emoting. Robert Treveiler might not be competing with Brad Pitt in the World's Sexiest anything, but he has every ounce of Pitt's ability to hit the high notes of humor, drama and romance. And Rhoda Griffis (as Jessie's best friend Chippy) inserts laugh after laugh in the role you'd usually expect to see Joan Cusack playing - the wacky best friend.

But special mention must be made of Cody Newton - if this kid isn't a precocious brat yet, it isn't because he hasn't earned the right to be. Put him up there right alongside that kid who saw dead people... what was his name again? You won't spit out your popcorn, jump to your feet and pronounce him as the second coming of Brando, but you'll sure as hell wipe some salty liquid back from your eyeball a time or two when he takes the screen and makes his presence felt.

Some movies are destined to disappear unrecognized for their beauty and talent and poignancy, because the decision-makers and power-players aren't ready to embrace them as they should. If The Chester Story needs to take that path to obscurity because those with the cash can't see that it would connect with audiences in a big, emotional, repeat-viewing, My Big Fat Greek Wedding kind of way, then so be it. All involved with its production should wear that failure as a badge of honor. You made a great movie, folks, and even if all it ever gets is a video release in Greece, or a 3AM showing on Lifetime, they can't take that away from you.

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originally posted: 09/19/03 19:29:58
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User Comments

1/13/07 Roy Ellis Right from the start I knew this was going to be a great movie. I loved. 5 stars
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