I’ve never seen an actress with a physical presence quite like Laura Dern’s. More than just tall, she’s startlingly elongated. Everything about her — legs, waist, neck — is so sinewy, so luxuriously stretched out, that at times she has the absurd, towering aura of Alice in Wonderland just after drinking that potion. What’s special about Dern is the way her face — and her spirit — matches that outsize body. There’s a rangy, expressive simplicity to her features. Her eyes are so bright and direct they’re almost stylized, and her mouth is a geometric wonder: When she grins, it tilts her whole face heavenward, and when she cries, it contorts into a tragedy mask’s gaping, upside-down smile — an expression of unadulterated sorrow. No young actress today can play emotionally hungry postadolescents with such purity and yearning.
In the disarmingly sweet-spirited comedy Rambling Rose, which is set in rural Georgia during the Depression, Dern is perfectly cast as Rose, a wayward but feisty girl who has been on her own — and also with many, many men — ever since she was 14. Rose, who has the body (and desires) of a woman, is really an overgrown child. She’s simple — not dumb, exactly, but so trusting and matter-of-fact that her take-it-as-it-comes approach naturally extends to matters of sensuality. As conceived by the veteran screenwriter and novelist Calder Willingham, Rose isn’t a very complex character. She pursues sex, but only because she wants love. She doesn’t really grow or change over the course of the movie. The charm of Dern’s performance is that she doesn’t need to. We accept her on the film’s rather quaint, storybook terms.
Rose has had a tough life, but she’s so naive she’s barely aware of it. She gets a chance at stability when she is offered the job of live-in servant for the Hillyers, a prosperous Southern family. Everyone in the house soon falls in love with her vivacious, life-force spirit. Yet she also throws things out of whack. Convinced she’s in love with the courtly, reserved Mr. Hillyer (Robert Duvall), she leaps on him the moment they’re alone. (He tells her to stop, but not before tussling for a few minutes.) She crawls into bed with the precocious 13-year-old Buddy (Lukas Haas), stoking — though not consummating — his teen fantasies. And she becomes an inspiration for Mrs. Hillyer (Diane Ladd), a protofeminist who ”obeys” her husband but always manages to convince him she’s right anyway. Just by being in the house and acting on her whims, Rose casually upends the Southern code of chivalry — the code on which someone like Mr. Hillyer bases his every move. Rambling Rose becomes a gentle comic tribute to the soulful power of women in a world ”ruled” by men.
Duvall and Ladd have a few sublime moments together. Duvall has probably never been this tender, and there’s affection and wisdom in Ladd’s portrayal of an instinctively moral woman who’s only too aware of the politics guiding her marriage. The movie, though, has some nagging flaws. It would have been richer if there had been some scenes between Rose and the lovers she takes in town. These young men are mostly anonymous comic figures scrambling out of her bedroom window. And the final sequence is a major, mood-shattering botch: It spells out in capital letters what we already know — that Rose is someone the Hillyers will remember forever. The true ending is the scene before it, in which it’s revealed just how deeply Rose has touched the wide-eyed, teenage Buddy. It’s a measure of Laura Dern’s presence that we don’t doubt it for a minute. B