Wednesday 26 December 2012

The propaganda screed as agreeable time-waster

If Google Trends is any indication, abortion as a hot-button issue is in decline in America. Searches still cluster faithfully around presidential elections, but each peak is less impressive than the one before it. 'Pro-life' and 'pro-choice' have suffered similar and closely aligned, albeit steadier declines. Despite the best effort of Republican lawmakers and Catholic bishops, attempts to curb reproductive rights have largely been defeated, and much like the larger Christian Right electoral coalition the pro-life movement seems unlikely to regain its place as a decisive force in American politics.

That may explain the tone of last year's October Baby, which - despite containing all the easy moralising, emotional appeals and casual misogyny that have caused even dedicated pro-lifers to turn their back on the movement - feels unexpectedly gentle, even elegiac. Unapologetically pandering to people who already agree with it, October Baby is not so much aimed at converting anyone to the cause as it is about patting activists on the back and telling them they had a good run.

After collapsing during a college play, Hannah (Rachel Hendrix) finds out why she has been sickly since infancy: she is the survivor of a failed abortion. Against the objections of her adoptive father (John Schneider), she joins her only friend and secret crush Jason (Jason Burkey) on a road trip to Mobile, Alabama, where she hopes to pick up the trail of her birth mother. With the help of a number of people who take pity on her, including not one but two police officers (Robert Amaya and Tracy Miller) and a nurse (Jasmine Guy), Hannah is finally able to find her mother and learn lessons about forgiveness, redemption and living life to the full.

In case that made it sound all right, let me state in no uncertain terms that October Baby is a bad film. It suffers first and foremost from a totally pedestrian script whose beats land all exactly where you expect them. The actors aren't particularly inspired by it, but they turn in reasonably effective performances: the real actors (John Schneider and Jasmine Guy) more so than others, but even the supporting actors essentially earn their keep, if no more. Hendrix, the nominal star, is the wobbliest of them all, genuinely nailing some of her scenes but flubbing lines in other places. She is, anyway, rather likeable, generally affecting and does not seem dead inside, which is pretty much all you can ask for in this sort of project.

That's the narrative, anyway: but o sweet Lord, the sheer artlessness of the thing! The mostly functional editing just falls apart in a few places, cutting off lines and introducing continuity errors; and the blocking is hardly any better, cutting off people's faces and producing entirely information-free frames. Flaws like that crop up only now and again, but from the look of the whole thing there is no escape.

For lo, even though I'm generally on board with the digital revolution in film October Baby offers a masterclass in how not to use the Red One and its cousins. In the hands of director Jon Erwin, acting as his own director of photography (a poor idea for those of us who are not Steven Soderbergh), high-definition video looks really damn awful, as if Erwin had heard of cinematography but wasn't quite sure what the term meant. I know the film's one-size-fits-all sheen and totally flat 'arty' aesthetic because I'm an evangelical Christian and that's what our more expensive videos look like. I'm sorry, everybody.

I may complain, but here it is: I actually kind of enjoyed October Baby. The G-rated teen shenanigans are endearing in a dorky fashion, and I honestly had fun with the budding romance between Hannah and Jason: they don't have any chemistry, I guess, but there's a certain pleasant atmosphere. The guilt-forgiveness-redemption arc several characters go through may be trite, but it can't be denied that October Baby achieves genuine poignancy and emotional release in places. You get the feeling that if the film wasn't totally in thrall to a censorious subculture, it might find something raw and real to say rather than just rattling off pro-life talking points. (Over the credits there is an interview with actress Shari Rigby, who has struggled with guilt over having an abortion. It's really quite moving.)

And yet there is quite a lot that is unpleasant and troubling in October Baby too, especially the treatment of the 'unredeemed' women who must be shown the error of their ways. At no point does the film suggest there's anything wrong with Hannah just showing up unannounced at her birth mother's office to confront her. The film wields forgiveness more as a weapon than a bridge to restoration: it's about vindication and vengeance rather than reconciliation. That's the big one, but the treatment of more marginal women is just as icky: there's Jason's girlfriend Alanna (Colleen Trusler), for example, whose unique personality trait is 'bitch' and who is shoved aside just as soon as possible.

With its unexpected endorsement of ecumenism, though, October Baby is still gentler than than the slew of anti-feminist organisations and Southern Poverty Law Center-certified hate groups endorsing it might indicate. It's not easy to create propaganda that's also good entertainment, and October Baby doesn't make the cut. Instead, it exposes the soullessness of the dying evangelical subculture. It's the cinematic equivalent of the insipid Christian pop-rock crowding the sountrack: slick, earnest and utterly empty.

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