The newest film from director Martha Stephens, who debuted last year’s Flyover Fest with Passenger Pigeons, follows the newly out of work James as he leaves his long-time girl friend and urban Louisville behind to begin a two month trek down Kentucky’s long Sheltowee Trace Trail. Made locally, featuring local actors and musicians, Pilgrim Song tries to both created a defensive, loving portrait of the backwoods Kentucky landscape and craft a story about wandering without aim or direction. Sadly, it doesn’t truly succeed in either.
There is a clear wish to compose a Homeric journey within this film, casting the hero away and gradually allow the world to show him the way home. I see that in there, and on many artistic fronts, I see it working. The foremost problem arises in Pilgrim Song’s hero, James. Actor Timothy Morton does give a wonderful performance as the internal, awkward main character, no question about that. No, the problem is with the character himself. You can feel the long-term girlfriend, played by co-writer Karrie Crouse, radiate with both frustration on the part of his passive silence and longing for the happier time they had as she drives him to the entrance of the trail. Well, as an audience member, I don’t have the memories to dwell on, and am therefore regulated to the frustration on James’ perpetual quiet.
Without any clue into his mental workings, I couldn’t tell who he was, and without that, I have nothing to latch onto, nothing for which to root. And on top of that, it makes most of his actions come of as selfish and somewhat deplorable. There is a scene that I felt summed up my thoughts on James, in which he sits in a shopping cart letting a 10 year old boy push him and then starts complaining about how kids can be jerks. This scene undoubtedly tried for comedy, I just couldn’t find it. Admittedly, this is a personal matter, as main characters without anything redeemable make it more difficult for me to connect with a film. Usually in that case, there is ancillary support from other characters or situations. In Pilgrim Song, it was largely just James in the woods, hoping that Kentucky itself would play that supportive role. I needed more than that.
As James runs into the need for help, he is forced into society and ultimately into the companionship of Lyman, played deftly by Bryan Marshall, and his son. The inclusion of this friendship did alleviate some of my character misgivings, unfortunately it happened far too late in the film and also underscored a tonal problem I had with the entirety. I could never exactly discern how it wanted its carefree comedic impulses to brush up against rural Kentucky residents. I do not think that Stephens intended the audience to laugh at the quirky characters that slipped in and out of James’ narrative, but they were largely presented as fools. I could never tell if there was an ironic note to the humor or not, and most of the jokes just fell flat against my confused ears. In the end I guessed that the residents of Kentucky were meant as a lovable yet clumsy foil to the weight of the world, I just found this turned them into a generalized, two dimensional people.
I certainly enjoyed parts of this movie, don’t get me wrong. The scenery was often breathtaking, if overused, and the music was sensational. And though, I stand firm in my reaction to the main characters, some emotional notes did resonate through the film and gave the weight they intended. The cinematography also contained the perfect earthy, grainy texture that fit wonderfully in with its surroundings.
After the screening, a question and answer session was held with writer/director Stephens where she displayed her obvious love of rural Kentucky and her respect of loose narrative films such as this. She involved much of her family and friends in the production, which openly avows how personal she felt of this journey and those that take it. With a heavy heart, for I do love Kentucky and all the aspects she wanted to show, I must say that I found Pilgrim Song meandering rather than loose, confusing rather than lovable, and frustrating rather than heroic.