Movie Review: Country Strong
By Matthew Huntley
January 11, 2011
On the outside, Country Strong looks like a made-for-TV melodrama. We go into it not sure of its overall purpose. But then we watch it, and as it plays, it develops an unexpected hold on us, one that makes us realize we underestimated its value. It’s about a struggling country singer who, after leaving rehab, discovers that being a famous performer is a lifestyle she can no longer bear. The reason a movie like this usually gets made is because it’s based on a real-life individual, but Country Strong comes from an original screenplay. Its relevance to the audience may not be readily obvious, but it turns meaningful once we realize the filmmaker is taking the material seriously and has truly intended to make an involving drama.
The country star is Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who’s just spent the last few months in secluded rehab center in the Midwest. She’s there because she’s addicted to alcohol, which culminated in tragedy at one of her concerts in Dallas. Her husband and manager, James (Tim McGraw), thinks she’s ready to be released, but it’s too soon. He’s probably thinking more about her upcoming tour than her overall well being. Their marriage is a fragile one because these are now two wounded and sad people, each of whom only seems to love the past version of the other. Their future is uncertain.
Kelly finds more passion and excitement with Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a local country singer who plays small gigs simply because he enjoys singing. He’s not out for fame or fortune, which explains his job as a simple attendant at the rehab center, where he’s wooed Kelly and become her lover and confidant. When James comes to pick her up and sees her interacting with Beau, he instinctively knows Kelly has been unfaithful, but he plays along, maybe because it’s in his career’s best interest.
James heads to a local bar to evaluate Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) as Kelly’s opener. Chiles is a former beauty queen and an up-and-coming singer with the potential of being the next Taylor Swift. But despite a good voice and a pretty face, she gets stage fright and says things like, “Oh my gosh.” When Beau comes to her rescue, it prompts James to ask him if he’ll join Chiles on stage for Kelly’s 10-city tour. He agrees because it means helping Kelly.
Our instincts tell us a movie such as this can only proceed along a conventional path, with all the usual melodrama and standard happy ending. And with such expectations going in, we’re asking ourselves why we should care about any of these people or their intertwining stories. But as the film proceeds, we learn it’s not going to fall for the usual gimmicks and cheese that might otherwise be associated with the genre. To our surprise, writer-director Shana Feste doesn’t taking the premise for granted but actually believes in telling a thoughtful story, with multi-dimensional characters, strong performances and credible drama.
One of the better scenes takes place during Kelly’s first show, where she’s on stage and starts talking to the audience in a semi-drunken stupor instead of singing to them. The scene is reminiscent of Ronee Blakley’s classic breakdown in Robert Altman’s Nashville. As in that film, the scene is performed so well it begins to feel awkward. But the reason it feels awkward is because it’s so convincing. There are other effective moments like this throughout, and although the movie feels relatively safe and routine in the grand scheme of things, the dialogue is mature and believable, the music is lively, and there are some fine emotional beats that raise the drama to a higher level.
Paltrow is well cast as the ailing superstar, woebegone and grief-stricken, but the real standouts are McGraw, Hedlund and Meester, the latter two of whom, I learned, actually sang their own songs (as does Paltrow). It’s their raw performances that don’t make us feel like the movie is patronizing or exposing us to hokey drama. The actors believe in the material and Feste proves it by holding on their faces during key moments. She gives them time to react, talk and become real.
I didn’t expect to have such a strong reaction to Country Strong. It’s not as emotionally captivating as last year’s Crazy Heart, but it still manages to tug at our heart strings fairly and we let it. We become involved in (and are entertained by) the ensuing drama among its four main characters. By the end, they are people we’ve come to care about, despite us not thinking we would.