It takes a wealth of skills to become a good movie director—you’ve got to be a visual artist, a technician, an accountant, a ringleader/manager—yet if I had to come up with a single test to measure someone’s filmmaking acumen, it might be this: Can the director stage a piercing argument between two characters—and get you to sympathize with both of them?
Early on in her funny and moving independent feature, Gas Food Lodging, Allison Anders passes the test. We’re in the spare, rather desolate small town of Laramie, N.M., a place that seems less a community than a random stretch of desert highway dotted with diners, gas stations, and trailer parks. Trudi (Ione Skye), a sullen, pouting teenager in clingy miniskirts, has returned from a date at two in the morning. Entering the cramped corridors of the motor home she shares with her younger sister, Shade (Fairuza Balk), and their divorced waitress mother, Nora (Brooke Adams), she is suddenly confronted by her mom, who’s convinced —probably rightly—that Trudi has been fooling around with another in a series of casual boyfriends.
Nora, it’s plain to see, is no heartless disciplinarian. She’s trying to keep a leash on her daughter because she’s terrified of losing her. At the same time, it’s easy to identify with Trudi’s quest for sexual freedom—even as we see that it may be a self-deluding dream, a way of punishing herself (and her mother, too). Before long, voices are raised—Skye hits a note somewhere between a screech and a wail-yet we’re so caught up in the two women’s passionate connection to each other that the scene just about transcends their hectoring anger.
Made for $1.5 million, Gas Food Lodging is a sketchy but ebullient comic drama with a tinge of pain at its center. The movie’s emotional backdrop is the inchoate melancholy of a broken home. Anders, though, concentrates on the romantic mishaps of her three heroines: the sensual, morose Trudi, who has gotten herself on a roller coaster of anonymous sex and isn’t sure how to get off; Shade, who is coming into adolescence and waiting for the whole boy thing to start (as she discovers, it’s the fact that she’s sitting around waiting that’s the problem); and Nora, responsible and loving but wearier than she ever dreamed she’d be, wrung out from too many waitress shifts and too many fizzled relationships. Brooke Adams, her face now worn with creases, has retained her soft, tender spirit. Her Nora may be the mother of two teenagers, but we can still glimpse the girl she once was.
Part of the film’s charm is that even as this family of women struggle to include men in their lives, it isn’t always clear which men they should trust. We’re taking chances right along with them, discovering hidden prospects in the everyday. There are daffy ones, like a satellite-dish installer named Hamlet (David Lansbury), who takes a shine to Nora, and earnest ones, like the soft-spoken British geologist (Robert Knepper) who wins Trudi’s trust. The scene in which these two make love in a cave lit by iridescent rocks may be corny—a new version of sex with fireworks—but it’s also tenderly erotic.
Gas Food Lodging is really about the same thing Thelma & Louise was about: It’s a portrait of working-class women betrayed and abandoned by men. Yet I vastly preferred this movie’s generous and buoyant tone. Anders refuses to turn her characters into victims, even when they’re treated badly. She sees redeeming comic features even in encounters that don’t work out, such as Shade’s valiant and amusing attempt to seduce her best friend (Donovan Leitch), an androgynous window designer who worships Olivia Newton-John. Gas Food Lodging is finally an ode to the joy of romantic possibility. If the movie has a guiding spirit, it’s Shade, who feeds her romantic fantasies at the local Spanish movie theater, drinking in the overripe melodramas of an obscure Mexican star named Elvia Rivero. Anders, like a homegrown Truffaut, hints at the purity and wildness—as well as the absurdity—of Shade’s cinema-fed daydreams.
And Fairuza Balk invests the role with a quiet emotional power that’s rare to see in such a young actress. When this wide-eyed girl suddenly realizes she has found the right boy, it’s a triumphant moment—a fleeting dance of bliss.