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Barefoot

D: Andrew Fleming / 90m

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Scott Speedman, Treat Williams, Kate Burton, J.K. Simmons, Ian Nelson, J. Omar Castro, David Jensen

Jay Wheeler (Speedman) is a man with problems.  He doesn’t have a job, he owes $37,000 to a bookie, and to make matters worse, he’s on probation.  When his next brush with the law sees him assigned to community service mopping floors at an L.A. psychiatric hospital, Jay uses his easy-going manner to charm the staff and patients alike – except for sceptical Dr Bertleman (Simmons) who thinks Jay will screw up there just as he has everywhere else.  One day a new patient, Daisy Kensington (Wood), arrives at the hospital.  Jay is immediately attracted to her, but he’s not allowed to have any contact with her.  One night, Jay rescues Daisy from the attentions of another patient; having hit him, Jay knows he’ll end up back in prison and attempts to leave – but not without Daisy who tags along with Jay despite his best efforts to dissuade her.

Having already agreed to attend his brother’s wedding in New Orleans, and having lied to his parents (Williams, Burton) about his work and that he has a girlfriend, Jay decides to let Daisy tag along and be part of “the plan” to hoodwink them.  Daisy, who has never been outside the apartment where she lived with her mother until her mother died recently, has very little social awareness, and is easily stressed.  At the wedding reception she comes under pressure from Jay’s father and has a panic attack.  With his parents realising something isn’t right about Daisy (and her relationship with Jay), a confrontation between them all leads to Jay and Daisy heading back to L.A. in his father’s prized camper van.

As they travel across country, Jay and Daisy’s relationship develops as they try and avoid the police – Jay has violated his probation by travelling outside California, and the hospital authorities view Daisy as potentially dangerous to others (they believe she killed her mother) – and their increasing love for each other prompts Jay to reevaluate his life and turn things around.  But first, he has to get Daisy back to the hospital…

Barefoot - scene

Ostensibly a romantic comedy – albeit a deceptively dry one – Barefoot is a remake of the German movie Barfuss (2005).  It moves at a measured pace that suits the material, and offers the viewer two equally measured performances from its leads.  It’s a movie that treads carefully around the possibility that Daisy may have actually killed her mother, and underplays the seriousness of the plight she and Jay find themselves in while travelling back to L.A. (at one point they’re chased by a police cruiser but make a successful getaway without any other police being involved).  Even Jay’s estrangement from his father, potentially a rich source of drama, is neatly dispensed with after having served its purpose at the wedding celebrations.  Barefoot only makes a real effort with the romance between Jay and Daisy (deliberately named after the characters from The Great Gatsby?).

Fortunately, this is the area in which the movie succeeds the most, and with simple efficiency and a great deal of charm.  As the couple who find they can’t live without each other (even if one of them may be a matricide), Wood and Speedman are a great match, her curious expressions, coupled with wide-eyed amusement at the world she’s only glimpsed via TV, highlighting the naiveté and lack of guile that makes Daisy such an engaging character.  It’s a quietly impressive performance, not too showy and yet not so insular that Daisy lacks depth or is unsympathetic.  Speedman’s performance complements Wood’s, making Jay a good-natured heel who, despite some bad choices, knows when to do the right thing, and knows the value of his relationship and what it’s loss will ultimately cost him.  Like Wood, Speedman keeps it low-key, hitting the emotional beats with quiet intensity, and in doing so, makes Jay’s blossoming sense of responsibility to others entirely credible.

Wood and Speedman are ably supported by Williams et al, and if the script by Stephen Zotnowski opts for secondary characters that often serve as functions of the plot, rather than as fully fledged individuals, then they’re still competently played (Simmons stands out as the doctor who tries to give Jay a second chance).  In the director’s chair, Fleming handles the material well, fashioning an at times offbeat romantic comedy and making a virtue of its lightness of touch.  Even though it’s a predictable journey that Jay and Daisy take together, Fleming still keeps it interesting and draws the audience in with ease.  There’s some beautiful location photography courtesy of DoP Alexander Gruszynski, and Michael Penn’s laid-back score is augmented by the inclusion of songs by the likes of Nick Drake.

Rating: 7/10 – overcoming its lightweight, predictable storyline thanks to two accomplished lead performances, Barefoot won’t get the wider audience it deserves, but those that do find it will be amply rewarded; a treat for fans of romantic movies, and moviegoers in general.

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