Directed by Martha Coolidge. Starring Laura Dern, Robert Duvall, Diane Ladd, Lukas Haas, John Heard. (1991)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 27, 1991
Rambling Rose is a warm, winning slice of life set in 1935 Georgia. It tells the story of how a whole family is affected when the gangly yet sexually irrepressible Rose (Dern) enters their lives. Moreover, it offers an uncompromising and unsentimental look at women's sexual prerogatives and desires. As scripted by Calder Willingham (The Graduate, Little Big Man, Paths of Glory) from his autobiographical novel, Rambling Rose opens with the Hillyer clan taking in the dirt-poor and unsophisticated Rose to live with them as family and help with the domestic chores. Their kindness fulfills this somewhat eccentric family's need for live-in help -- what with three small children and Mother (Ladd) working on her master's thesis for Columbia University -- but it also is a kindhearted gesture designed to save Rose from those “scoundrels” in Birmingham. Rose is a sweet, good-natured soul who confuses her abundant need for love with rampant promiscuity. She mistakes Daddy Hillyer's (Duvall) poetic flights for passion and she comically flings herself at him in a sexual near-miss. That scene is followed by another hilarious near-sex scene between Rose and a most curious 13-year-old Buddy (Haas), who hopes that the alluring Rose will initiate him into the adult mysteries of life. In fact, the whole of Rambling Rose is structured as a nostalgic recollection of the adult Buddy (Heard) -- a grown man's reverie of his first love. The movie uses a beginning and ending framing device of the adult Buddy's return home. Not only is it unnecessary sentimental goo, its inclusion threatens the authority of the rest of the story. At the simplest level, we become privy to events that would have been beyond the knowledge and/or apprehension of the boy. Fortunately, the movie is so good that I'm willing to sideline this argument. Strict narrative purity would also require the excision of one of my favorite scenes in which Mother is compelled to fight for her beliefs and dissuade her husband from his pre-determined judgments. Dern, Duvall, Ladd and Haas are all so wonderful to watch that these characters will live forever in your consciousness. Truly extraordinary performances, the familiar yet rarely predictable script and the fertile subtext that looks at sexuality and desire through feminist question marks, makes Rambling Rose one of the year's most touching and absorbing movie experiences.