From its awkward sense of humor to capturing parts of nondescript South Florida that no longer exist, there are pleasures to be found in writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s modest debut feature, River of Grass. Shot in 1993 in and around North Miami, the short feature film was recently restored and re-released by New York-based indie distributor Oscilloscope. Shot on color 16mm, the film also captures that Generation X zeitgeist of slackerdom that transcends the current nostalgia by fashion designers to bring back the era in clothing. For those who actually lived the ‘90s in South Florida, there’s also the bonus of the film’s time capsule quality.
The movie follows Dade County (now known as Miami-Dade County) suburban housewife Cozy (Lisa Bowman), who deals with her regret over getting married and having kids by running off with a loser named Lee (Larry Fessenden) who picks her up at a dive bar in Broward County. South Florida is a spread out area, built on the Everglades (a.k.a The River of Grass). It’s a trek to travel across the Dade-Broward line. For Cozy, crossing into Broward might as well be escaping to Canada. She finds a new sense of freedom with Lee, as the pair meander about the two counties, trying to support a life on the lam by selling Lee’s mom’s record collection, but no one seems to want them. One store clerk (Robert Perry, a real record store owner from North Miami) tells Lee, “You have some real nice stuff … but I basically deal in jazz.”
It’s funny that Reichardt shot the film against the ever-changing backdrop of South Florida. Not much remains of the locations where Reichardt filmed. In her voice over, Cozy laments urban sprawl encroaching in what are now the Broward suburbs of Weston. “They say that within two years there will be a shopping center every 15 miles,” Cozy says as the landscape of construction sites roll past a car window, a prophecy that’s not entirely untrue. It gives the film a layer of ennui that’s particularly acute to those who watched this come true in the ‘90s, where rural land was suddenly zoned for multi-family homes by county commissioners in the pockets of developers.
But River of Grass is also easily Reichhardt’s funniest film. Driving the film’s drama is the knack of Cozy’s father (Dick Russell), a Metro-Dade Police detective, of misplacing his gun. A friend of Lee finds the gun by the road, and gives it to Lee because he doesn’t know what to do with it. In the hands of Lee it goes off in the dumbest, disaffected ways possible: randomly out a car window and ineptly used to try to kill a palmetto bug, the biggest kind of cockroach you’ll find in South Florida (and it flies). When Cozy fires it, however, they think they’ve killed someone, so they hunker down at a ratty motel (which once made appearances on “Miami Vice”).
As a director’s first film, River of Grass, features some clumsy, shallow acting. With age, however, the movie more than ever speaks to the slacker era when it was created. Considering the terrific work of her later years, particularly Wendy and Lucy (2008) starring Michelle Williams, there’s a kind of charm to be found in the film’s amateurish quality. But there are also moments of greatness. Fessenden, a filmmaker himself, not only stars in the film but also edited it. The montage that opens River of Grass — featuring still images, tracking camera and Cozy’s voice over sharing her tale of woe — kicks off the film with an earthy spiritedness.
Though it made a strong debut at Sundance when it was first released and was nominated for an Independent Spirit award, River of Grass shows its age. It won’t blow anyone away beyond the curious aspect as an early insight into Reichardt’s filmmaking. But it’s very exciting to see it hit screens in South Florida, where the film was shot, capturing a genuine portrait of the area that will feel real to those who lived in here then, and it’s kind of fun that a filmmaker of such esteem like Reichardt captured it. She is, after all, the inspiration behind the title of this blog, someone who truly embodies the Independent Ethos.
River of Grass runs 76 minutes and is not rated (anyone who has been a young adult will relate with it). It will have its Miami premiere at the Miami Beach Cinematheque as part of Tigertail’s Water Series this Wednesday, April 20. It’s also being distributed to other parts of the U.S. For a list of screenings, visit the film’s website. Oscilloscope provided a screener link for the purpose of this review as well as all images used in the post (except for the screenshot featuring Bob Perry). We also interviewed the film’s director, read that here: