Still from 1991's "Rambling Rose."

 Rambling Rose February 6, 2018 


Martha Coolidge



Laura Dern

Diane Ladd

Robert Duvall

Lukas Haas

John Heard

Lisa Jakub









1 Hr., 47 Mins.

e get the sense that Rose (Laura Dern) grew up too fast. She was born an orphan, came of age in poverty, and resorted to prostitution to support herself in her teenage years. Like a lot of young women raised amid less-than-ideal circumstances, though, she’s eager to better her life – and herself.


We first meet her in 1935, when she is 19 years old, at the apex of her rather unadorned brand of beauty, and en route to starting a job as a domestic servant. Coming from a dejected life in Birmingham, she


from now on will be working for the Hillyers, a mercurial family playing house on the picturesque Southern countryside. She imagines that maybe her life will move upward in the presence of this loving bunch. The brood is so functional, after all: father Hillyer (Robert Duvall) is hard-working and winsome; his wife (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mother) is sweet but lionhearted; all the kids, particularly the 13-year-old Buddy (Lukas Haas), are well-adjusted and quick to accept this flighty servant.


Since the film’s narrated by a 49-year-old Buddy (John Heard), who's wistfully reflecting upon the impact Rose had on his and his family’s life, we’re prepared for coming-of-age saccharinity. Perhaps an even more romanticized take on the Eve’s Bayou (1997) formula. But Rambling Rose, the movie telling the story of this fickle 19-year-old and the people who take her in, is surprisingly perspicacious. It’s both a peculiarly moving account of a boy’s sexual awakening and a story detailing the trials and tribulations of a woman misunderstood by almost everyone around her.


The movie was written by Calder Willingham (who also penned the novel from which the feature is adapted) and directed by Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl, 1983; Real Genius, 1985), and admirable is the way it finds a deft balance between soft-edged nostalgia and unmistakable frankness. Much of what we see is rooted in the rose-colored perspective of the grown Buddy, among the few who looks at the Great Depression as a rather remarkably fanciful time in his life.


But the film also takes the time to underscore just how difficult it was to be a woman like Rose in this uncharacteristically sunny 1935. To be so outwardly sexual and so frighteningly impulsive went directly against the grain of a conservative era. Because she seems so incapable of understanding what she deserves – or what effects her actions might have – we grow to care about her.


And not just because any woman who cannot bear to be anyone but herself in a status quo-obsessed period makes for an immediately intriguing heroine. Rose is also such an instantaneously likeable creation because we can sense that, even as she’s doing a great many things that will incontestably throw her life way off course, she possesses an enviable lust for life. (Dern is infectious here, portraying a certain sort of contradicting impetuousness and ravishing one-of-a-kindness that makes her almost impossible to resist.)


We come to love the Hillyers, too. Bearing a type of otherness that can only come with living in a moderately closed-off, sun-dappled property in the country, they are quirky but, like Rose, fearlessly themselves. I especially idolized Mrs. Hillyer, who is the only one willing to embrace Rose for who she is. (When someone so much as suggests that her servant is dangerously promiscuous, for instance, Mrs. Hillyer will snap and declare that Rose is simply looking for love; she should not be shamed even if she approaches such an aspiration capriciously.)


Willingham furtively develops believable relationships between these characters. By throwing in various heart to hearts and mundane examples of the day to day, we have a good idea of how this family interacted before Rose came into their lives – and how they’re going to move forward after she’s completed her unofficial mission of making a lasting mark.


The movie makes for a Technicolored, appropriately melancholic snapshot – an abbreviated summarization of when the Hillyers were at their happiest, of when the memorable Rose was beginning the rest of her life. Perhaps the overreaching film contains a set of characters stronger than its story. (Rose and the Hillyers are all individually interesting, but the events through which they have to waft through comparatively aren’t as much.) But it’s so atypical for a feature to establish an ensemble this alive, we’re willing to overcome whatever qualms we might have. B+