Gas Food Lodging
The characters of Allison Anders’s affecting Gas Food Lodging (1992) will never know what it’s like to be at peace — they’ll forever be laboring, forever be too co-dependent to ever live their respective lives completely detached from one another. Dwellers of the kind of small, American town populated by few but visited by tourists on long road trips and hungry truckers aplenty, all they know how to do is live in the moment. Day to day existence is a struggle unlike any other.
Because none of them are going to go to college and none of them are going to one day make something of themselves. They’re going to be tied down to the food service industry and are perhaps going to get married and have kids out of boredom and obligation. Such aren’t cynical notions — presented to us in the film is a character study so immersed in the mundanities of blue collar life that such depressive things don’t much seem to be out of the ordinary.
Gas Food Lodging revolves around the hardships endured by single mom Nora (Brooke Adams) and her two young daughters, the older Trudi (Ione Skye) and the blossoming Shade (Fairuza Balk). Floundering in her raising of them in a trailer park in a minuscule midwestern town, Nora attempts to look for love whilst waitressing, with Trudi using promiscuity and class cutting as methods of escape and with Shade utilizing Spanish matinees as vehicles for introspection.
The film transitions between the plights of the trio like minor Altman, and, maybe even like the latter’s 3 Women (1977), they sometimes appear to be a single person represented through different identities — Trudi and Shade are essentially embodiments of Nora in her younger years, with Nora standing as the woman her daughters have great potential to become in their middle-age. Not that Anders is going for intellectual convolution — it’s that these characters are so well-defined that we can arguably envision who they were before we crossed their paths and what they’ll become in the years following our final goodbye. The characterizational definition, effective and sometimes heartbreakingly truthful, makes the viewing of Nora and company’s sufferings remarkably compelling.
Whether Gas Food Lodging is a coming-of-age film is debatable — while we definitively see Shade mature throughout the course of the movie, the conviction that Trudi and Nora are other versions of her are enough to ward off trappings of the subgenre. But I’m also fairly positive than I see the film as being more than it is. Anders in no doubt set out to craft a gritty slice-of-life, and yet I cannot quite stop myself from coming to my analytical conclusions. But watching Gas Food Lodging either from an escapist disposition or otherwise doesn’t much dissuade it from being the riveting kitchen-sink imitating drama that it is.
Anders is compassionate toward her characters and her ensemble undoubtedly understands them. Adams, Skye, and Balk all bring a humanity to their portrayals that distinguish the family as being one everlastingly fighting to reach self-actualization, their flirtations with lash-outs and bad behaviors only effects of their trying to understand who they are. We could watch them go through the motions in the expansive limits of an epic and never lose sight of our caring for them, warts and all.
Because hope is always at the forefront of Gas Food Lodging, it never becomes the disillusioned feature that it could be. One day we hope that Nora will find a man she really loves, get a decent education, and break out of the small world she’s found herself trapped in her entire life. That Trudi, despite her being a consistent fuck-up, will learn how to overcome her self-doubts and turn into the success she probably never will be. That Shade, who we immediately decide has a shot at breaking free from her dysfunctional upbringing, will thrive in a place that isn’t her pint-sized hometown. Maybe it’s all wishful thinking. But we root for these people enough to keep these fragments of optimism, and that’s crucial for Gas Food Lodging’s effectuality. A-