Director Scott Teems sets the tone of "That Evening Sun" in the first five minutes. There are no words spoken; the music is instrumental. This is not a film, it seems to tell its audience, that's going to rush.
Filmed entirely around Knoxville, "That Evening Sun" is the story of Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook), an octogenarian who leaves the nursing home his lawyer son has placed him in and returns home, only to find that his son has rented the property to Abner's former enemy, Lonzo Choat (Raymond McKinnon) and his family. Lonzo is a nasty, lazy, white-trash son of a whole slew of unprintable words. You get the feeling he'd shoot a man who was in his way, then have no idea how to walk a straight line on a clear path.
Abner is no angel either. Kept out of the main house, he stubbornly plants himself inside the farmhands' quarters and basically proceeds to try to tick Choat off. His wife (Dixie Carter, Mrs. Hal Holbrook) died in that house, and he feels like his memories of her are attached to the space. He remembers everything in hazy, romantic tones. His son recalls differently. That's the blessing and curse of loss: Memories are messed up. When someone is gone, the people who miss them most tend to just remember the good.
Based on the short story "I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down," by William Gay, the film addresses the snarls of the generational gap. Meecham's son, Paul, wants to put him out to pasture; Choat thinks he's basically a waste of space:
"Old people don't know when the ... clock's run out," he says.
It's a sad commentary.
Abner develops a reluctant bond with Choat's teenage daughter, Pamela (Mia Wasikowska), a sweet-as-pie, dumb, redneck hick of a girl. There's a certain purity of both the quite old and the quite young that makes for a real sweetness between the two.
Despite strong acting from Holbrook, "That Evening Sun" suffers as a film, largely due to lack of light. A lot of scenes take place at night, yes, but Teems relied too much on darkness as a character. It becomes an overbearing, scenery-chewing character. The actors' faces needed to be revealed more.
"That Evening Sun" is a really interesting character study. Beneath the stereotypes-that-really-aren't (at least not completely, the Lonzos and Pamelas and Abners are all out there), the characters are layered, complicated. The film twists through moments of humor (there's a scene involving a dog that's about fall-off-your chair hilarious while at the same time highly disturbing), anger, sadness and sweetness.
And yes, it crawls over a few too many moments of imitation home-spun Southernisms like "there's a difference between leaving home and forgetting the place altogether," but there's merit to what's being said even if it literally is being delivered from a rocking chair on a front porch.
It's a story about home, about generations, about growing older and about holding on and letting go. It's about family and about how simple is rarely part of the equation.
"Why can't you just be easy?" Paul Meecham says to his father.
Kids never are. Neither are parents.
'That Evening Sun'
* Rating: PG-13.
* Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.