Oh, silly, the movie about the lady country music superstar! Gwyneth Paltrow as Faith Trisha LeAnn Shania, for reals? Hey, cute: she meets the boytoy up-and-comer in rehab! Aww, adorable: an orphaned baby bird tucked into the movie that’s all like metaphorical and stuff for how fragile and delicate is a lady country music superstar on the downslide. *sniff*
But danged if I didn’t come way the hell around by the end of Country Strong… though I’m not sure I can ever forgive it its title, which seems contrived as a ready-made replacement slogan for Chevrolet’s “Like a Rock” campaign (“Chevy trucks: country strong”). Or the baby-bird thing, which is literally carried way too far to not be laughable. Yet if writer-director Shana Feste set herself an uphill climb here, she scales it effortlessly, too: there’s solid workmanship and an authentic emotional muscle in this movie. I was startled to find myself overwhelmed, eventually, by its ragged charms and its rough-edged vision of female power and pain. For all that it might seem that we’ve seen this same story — the rags-to-riches arc of the artist — before, we’ve never seen it done quite this way: intimate rather than epic, suffused with bitter irony, and unsentimentally bald-faced about the wages of fame. It just took a while for the film’s low-key style — it’s never glitzy and glammy about the glitz and glamour it’s depicting — to sneak up on me and make me appreciate it for what it is.
In fact, this isn’t even a rags-to-riches story: it’s riches to ruin. No, wait, it’s ruin to more ruin. Kelly Canter (Paltrow: Iron Man 2, Running with Scissors) is already huge as Country Strong opens, and already struggling to maintain her career and her self, and things aren’t looking to get better when her husband and manager, James (Tim McGraw: The Blind Side, Four Christmases), checks her out of rehab earlier than was planned. See, something bad went down in Dallas a while back — drink or drugs or what, we’re not sure at first — and she’s still as fragile as, well, that baby bird she found on the grounds of her fancy-schmancy residential clinic and has been nursing back to health. She found something else in rehab, too: hunky, sensitive singer-songwriter Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund, so blandly forgettable in Tron: Legacy, and so riveting here). James is ready to send Kelly immediately onto a mini three-city comeback tour, and wants beauty queen turned singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester: Going the Distance, Date Night) to open for her. Kelly wants Beau. They both get their way, and so commences a sort of love rectangle amongst the four of them, as age and experience contend with youth and innocence in bed and out. Will Beau and Chiles avoid the pitfalls of celebrity? (Oh, didn’t I say? Beau wasn’t a fellow patient at Kelly’s clinic; he worked there as an orderly, a money job to support his music.) Will Kelly and James patch up their troubled marriage? Will Kelly be able to pull off a single performance, or will she revert to whatever ways it was that landed her in rehab in the first place?
I won’t keep you in suspense: The moment immediately after James informs Beau that those prescription pills Kelly is downing are fine as long as she doesn’t mix them with alcohol, Kelly gets a shock that sends her to the bottle. But Feste — who gave us the lovely drama The Greatest earlier this year — never lets Kelly or her plight descend into the sordid, and she does let a biting, dry wit underscore it: giant American flags flutter down as a backdrop to Kelly’s onstage breakdown on the first stop of the tour; it’s a very American hunger for fame on Kelly’s part, and hunger to create fame on the fans’ part, that is inextricably mixed up in Kelly’s problems.
This is a world, too, as Feste’s acid observations depict it, in which “emergency press conferences” and Make-a-Wish appearances can redeem tarnished fame… but also one in which the fame is not undeserved. It was, in fact, the scene, late in the film, in which Kelly shows up in a classroom as a treat for a dying boy — and sings a lovely little song she improvises on the spot for him — that won me over. Neither Feste nor Paltrow — who displays an authoritative maturity here as an actor; she sings, too! — had gone out of their way to make Kelly overly ingratiating, and so to suddenly discover how much I liked her was a pleasant revelation.
Even better was the realization that I had not been manipulated into liking her, or, indeed, into liking the movie itself. Country Strong is far from perfect, but its honesty and lack of guile — even the terrible title and the baby-bird thing are sincere, if misguided — make it more winning than a movie that forces itself upon me.
Watch Country Strong online using LOVEFiLM‘s streaming service.