Picture Pollyanna as a nymphomaniac and you'll get some idea of what's percolating in this magnolia-scented memory piece about a nineteen-year-old Alabama flower named Rose (Laura Dern) who comes to live with a Georgia family in 1935. The Hillyers are a generous lot, despite the encroachment of the Depression. Mother (Diane Ladd) is a freethinker who's preparing her master's thesis in history while raising three precocious kids — Buddy (Lukas Haas), 13, Doll (Lisa Jakub), 11, and Waski (Evan Lockwood), 5. Daddy (Robert Duvall) runs a hotel; his speech runs to effusion. "You will adorn our house," he says, though this nymph errant has hired on to do housework.
Rose is understandably dazzled. The orphaned child of dirt farmers, she's had some hard knocks, including gonorrhea and a brush with prostitution. Daddy knows there are scoundrels out there trying to lead Rose astray. He's confident his home will offer safe haven.
Daddy's in for a few surprises. And so are moviegoers expecting little more from Rambling Rose than a ride down the nostalgia trail. Screenwriter Calder Willingham, who adapted his autobiographical novel, sees the story through Buddy, the boy whose life Rose changed forever. The film is bookended by a visit home from the fiftyish Buddy (John Heard), now a writer, and his reminiscences with his father about Rose. The framing device is sappy and unnecessary, but the damage is minimal. The film is richly comic and touching. Willingham (The Graduate, Paths of Glory) and director Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl) infuse the story with sweetness without sacrificing its spine.
Willingham wrote the novel and the script for Rambling Rose in 1972 and watched it languish in movie limbo. Last year, Dern brought the script to her then boyfriend, director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), who arranged financing through Carolco and formed his own company to produce it. Suddenly, Rose had muscle.
And Dern (Smooth Talk, Wild at Heart) knew what to do with it. Her knockout performance ranks her among the best actresses of her generation. From the moment her Rose rambles onto the Hillyers' front porch carrying a cardboard suitcase tied with string, Dern wraps up this film in her moonbeam smile and carries it to glory. "Hello, I'm Rose, and I've come to live with you and your family," she tells Buddy. But it's courtly Daddy who sets her aflame. One night, Rose jumps onto his lap (dislodging a perky breast from her dress) as the kids watch through the keyhole. "Wow, he's kissing her," says Buddy in shock. But Daddy comes to his senses. "Replace that tit," he bellows. Duvall is wonderfully funny and human as an Old World gentleman with his dignity under siege. "Wasn't Daddy great!" says Doll to her brothers. "I bet he wanted to kiss her some more and play with her, but he didn't."
In Buddy's room, Rose creeps into his bed to share her heartbreak. But Buddy, beautifully played by Haas (the kid from Witness), wants more than conversation. While Rose is distracted, he touches her breast over her nightgown. Rose lets him put his hand underneath, but when Buddy's fingers move to her crotch, she protests. He continues, pleading natural curiosity. After several minutes, his touch brings Rose to orgasm. Unaware of what he's doing, Buddy is nonetheless in awe as Rose closes her eyes, grits her teeth and cries out in release. Afterward, Rose is guilt-ridden. "I have robbed a cradle and fallen into hell," she says, begging Buddy never to tell his parents. It's quite a feat for an actress to keep an audience rooting for her after climbing into bed with a guppy, but Dern's disarming guilelessness does the trick.
Though Rose needs a sexual outlet, she wisely decides to reach outside the Hillyer home. In her clingiest dress she swings into town and soon has the men howling. Daddy has to drive off the polecats with a shotgun. He wants to fire Rose, but his wife objects. "It isn't sex she wants, it's love," says Mother, "and that's the only way she knows how to get it."
Ladd (Dern's real mother) brings welcome feminist bite to her role. It's clear that Coolidge is most engaged when investigating the subtext of sexual prejudice in Willingham's script. As she proved in her first feature, Not a Pretty Picture — the autobiographical story of a high-school date rape — Coolidge knows how to observe without moralizing. If there's a villain in the piece, it's Dr. Martinson (Kevin Conway), who diagnoses Rose as a psychoneurotic with "uncontrollable sexual impulses." About to remove an ovarian cyst that Rose and the Hillyers first feared was a pregnancy, the doc suggests removing the other ovary as well to dramatically diminish her sexual drive.
Daddy's inclination to go along with Martinson's sadistic plan enrages Mother. "Is there no limit to which you won't go to keep your illusions about yourselves?" she asks. The scene is more satisfying than believable, but it gets at something rare in movies: how males are fascinated and threatened by female sexuality. Men may want to exalt, screw or spay Rose, but none try to understand her.
Just as Mother won't let Rose be mutilated, Coolidge won't carve Rose into a male fantasy about a fuck bunny tamed by domesticity. The ending is a crock, with the older Buddy and Daddy grieving over Rose's recent death from cancer (the ovary killed her after all). But Coolidge's heart is not in the men's soggy tribute. What electrifies Rambling Rose are those moments that disconnect sex from penetration and virtue from repression. Dern's performance lingers like a siren's song. So does the movie. It's a beauty.