It’s sad that it should be so unusual to see the real American South onscreen. There aren’t many movies that take place here, and a good lot of those that do use Southern-ness as a lazy cultural shorthand, casting us as genteel dopes, or worse. With a few wonderful exceptions—David Gordon Green’s first few films, for instance, or Phil Morrison’s Junebug—Southern films tend to be much more concerned with the hillbillies than the hills.
Knoxvillians will be pleased, then, to know that Scott Teems’ That Evening Sun takes place very much in our South. This is quite literally true, of course; even those who didn’t cross the production’s path two summers ago (or read Jack Neely’s profile of producer Larsen Jay) may recognize the film as being shot in and around the greater Knoxville area. More importantly, the film’s attitude about its setting, its characters, and itself resonates with the spirit of our region. Sure, it’s about the rural poor, who drawl and misbehave, but it’s about real people and real problems, and no matter how simple either seems they couldn’t possibly be more complex.
Based on a short story by noted Tennessee author William Gay, That Evening Sun tells the story of 80-year-old Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook), who decides one morning that he’s tired of nursing home life and walks right out the front door, intent on returning to the small farm he dedicated the better part of his life to. He arrives to find a young stranger (Mia Wasikowska) sunning herself on the front lawn; asking her what she’s doing there (“sunbathing” is her sweetly coy response), he comes to find out that his son has leased the family farm to local ne’er-do-well Lonzo Choat (underused character actor and co-producer Ray McKinnon), who is making arrangements to take permanent possession. Incensed, Abner gains access to the tenant cabin just yards from the house under the pretense of gathering some belongings, clears out a space to live and sleep, and sets his mind to driving the Choats off his farm.
Teems, who adapted the story and makes his feature debut as a director, brings a lovely, unforced tone to the material, even if it often falls just short of the lyricism he seems to reach for. But the driving force—and the center of a substantial amount of glowing press for the film—is Hal Holbrook. The journeyman actor (recognizable from a nearly life-long stint impersonating Mark Twain onstage, as well as an Oscar-nominated turn in 2007’s Into the Wild) has invested the performance of a career in Abner Meecham, radiating a crotchety vulnerability as a man dedicating what may be his last days to reclaiming not only his property but also a measure of power over his situation. This grounds the character; as his actions range from silly and passive-aggressive—finding out that Choat dislikes dogs, Meecham takes possession of the noisiest mutt in the county and trains him to bark at a one-word command I won’t spoil here—to downright mean and dangerous, we retain our sympathies for him, even as it becomes clear they may ultimately be misplaced.
It’s this sly ambiguity that really distinguishes That Evening Sun, and the entire ensemble is just as instrumental as Holbrook in achieving it. The redneck Lonzo Choat has earned Meecham’s scorn and does things over the course of the film that are undeniably villainous, but both Teems’ script and McKinnon’s simmering performance bring Choat far beyond caricature. For fleeting moments we see his side of a bad situation, and we’re free to suspect he’s not a bad man. We’re moved also by the conflicted love of Choat’s wife Ludie (True Blood’s Carrie Preston), who steals each of her scenes, and by Meecham’s son Paul (The Shield’s Walton Goggins, another co-producer), who is forced by his obstinate father to speak hard truths.
Such emotionally realized films, confident without being overbearing, are just as uncommon as those that speak honestly to and about the area we call home, and That Evening Sun is all of those things and more. Its Knoxville origins will remain a point of pride, but this is much more than just a local production: It may just end up being one of best films you’ll see this year.