With Rails & Ties, rookie director Alison Eastwood (the daughter of erstwhile small town mayor and occasional actor Clint) has made a safe choice for her first film, if not necessarily a wise one. With its minimal cast and modest suburban setting, this small-bore effort is manageable and un-ambitious. But neither nuance nor finesse need be a function of budget, and R&T suffers from a screenplay that tries too hard to make a virtue of its unfussiness.
The melodramatic topography is made immediately and clumsily apparent. Engineer Tom (Kevin Bacon) is a trainman through and through, emotionally clenched and wedded to his circumscribed world of tight schedules and fixed routes. Megan (Marcia Gay Harden), his wife, is a shackled free spirit whos dying of cancer, lamenting her childlessness, and aching for the succour that her husband cant or wont give her. And 11-year-old Davey (a too-adorable-for-this-world Miles Heizer), orphaned when his suicidal mother chooses Toms tracks to make her exit, needs a break from being an under-supervised adult-in-training.
After a detour into a laughably Dickensian foster placement and the passive (and highly unlikely) collusion of a saintly social worker, Davey ends up in Tom and Megans care. Her pieces thus aligned, Eastwood sits back and lets the thing run as if on rails: Megan can live her final weeks in maternal bliss; Davey can approximate a normal childhood; and Tom, threatened with the loss of his wife and possibly his job, must, with Daveys help, refashion his relationship with a wider world. (God help me, there is actual kite flying.)
Manipulation averse viewers will bridle at the third acts emotional dishonesty. Megans suffering is sanitised and schematic. Davey adjusts easily and well. The selfishness of teasing Davey with, and then depriving him of, a second mother is left unexamined. And the Falwell-esque subtext (nuclear family wonderful; single mom bad) is blatantly off-putting.
Still, its undeniably devastating to see Megan and Davey get so achingly close to what each so desperately wants. And the nucleus of Bacon, Harden and Heizer generates likeability levels of fissionable strength.
There is little depth of characterisation here, and barely a single original thought. But damned if Eastwood doesnt at least know how to make the trains, and your tear ducts, run on time. (Warner)