Directed by Eugene Corr
At the Nickelodeon
Desert Bloom is a perfect example of a not particularly movie. It's a not particularly funny, not particularly sad, not particularly moving, not particularly artistic, not particularly good movie. Nor is it particularly bad.
It's just there.
Strangely enough, you could not really call Desert Bloom bad, because it really isn't. It's just inconsequential. This film falls under the heading of "sweet," perhaps the worst praise a movie can use to advertise itself. And there's something annoying about dramatic movies that take themselves too seriously and don't come to a good dramatic conclusion. You spend two hours watching the drama of this movie unfold, but you're still left with only half a movie.
Unfortunately, the half that you're left with isn't bad; in fact it's good enough to make you wish you had more. If you enjoy your food half-baked, there's a very good chance you might like Desert Bloom. This coming of age movie tries very hard and at times succeeds in capturing the life and emotions of its 13-year-old narrator.
It's the 1950s and the American government has started shipping its top scientists to the middle of the Nevada desert to test the Atom bomb. But Rose, the narrator who lives in Las Vegas, which lies close to the testing site, is touched only peripherally by the newcomers. She spends most of her time worrying about her turbulent relationship with her step-father and whether she will win the county spelling bee.
The beginning of the movie shows a closeup of Rose's eyes. She has just received her first pair of glasses which she hopes will give her "cheekbones and character" or at least make her look a little more like Ingrid Bergman. The end of the movie is also a close-up of Rose's face and we're supposed to see the difference. However, not enough has changed to make things interesting and not enough has stayed the same to make a statement.
This is the basic problem with the movie. And perhaps much of the fault lies with Annabeth Gish, who plays Rose. While Gish seems to have much emotion hidden inside her, she never allows any to surface. In real life, this way of acting is fine; on the screen it is boring. Gish seems to be a duckling on the verge of turning into a swan, but she never metamorphoses. Like the movie, she stays a duckling the entire way through.
Rose's parents, on the other hand, give the movie what little panache it has. Playing Rose's often drunken step-father, Jon Voight gives a touching performance as a World War II veteran having difficulty adjusting to civilian life, and fascinated by the secret workings of the military and their weaponry. Voight drinks to escape the memories, but everywhere around him are reminders of the military life. To compensate, Voight takes it out on the awkward Rose, going into a frenzy when he can't find his booze and then attacking her for leaving unwashed dishes.
JoBeth Williams delivers a convincing performance as Rose's mother who tries to see only the best in people and ignore the animosity between her husband and daughter. After Williams discovers that her beautiful sister, Star, has engaged in some drunken flirtation with Voight, she flies into a righteous rage that is a wonder to watch. Somehow, beneath all the creampuffiness of her performance, Williams convinces us that Rose's mother has the spunk her daughter doesn't.
While Gish's lackluster performance is disappointing, at least it provides a backdrop for those of her parents. Williams and Voight pick up where Gish left off and go one step further. Along with Star, they provide the film with what interest it has. In fact, one ends up wishing the movie would spend less time with Rose and more on her much more fascinating and complex parents, who are each grappling with somewhat more real problems.
The movie doesn't seem to know how to treat what one expects to be its central focus--the nuclear testing that its created as backdrop. Vague references are made to it throughout the movie, and the movie's climax is a huge explosion. One wishes, like Rose's step-father, that one could see more of the glamorized military intelligentsia. This is probably the same desire that many Las Vegans had in the 1950s. However, they had to live their lives, as boring as they might have been. You don't have to see this movie.