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Miss Meadows

D: Karen Leigh Hopkins / 88m

Cast: Katie Holmes, James Badge Dale, Callan Mulvey, Ava Kolker, Mary Kay Place, Jean Smart, Stephen Bishop

Miss Meadows (Holmes) is a sweet-natured, well-mannered substitute school teacher who hides a dark secret: she’s a vigilante, dedicated to “removing” anyone whose moral compass isn’t attuned as finely as her own. On her way home one day, she’s threatened by a gun-wielding kerb crawler who points a gun at her and tells her to get in his car. Miss Meadows promptly shoots him dead with her own gun… and carries on walking as if nothing has happened.

At the elementary school, Miss Meadows is put in charge of a class whose teacher has just died of cancer. One little girl, Heather (Kolker), has been seriously upset by this and Miss Meadows does her best to console her, and eventually earns her trust. In the meantime, she also meets the town Sheriff (Dale); there’s an immediate attraction but neither of them pursue it immediately. It’s left to the Sheriff to do the pursuing, and he takes Miss Meadows for a drive. As their romance blossoms, a school trip to a local park eventually sees Miss Meadows entering a fast food restaurant in order to get the school children some hot dogs. There she finds a young man has killed all the staff and customers and wants to kill himself. When she tells him he should, he attempts to kill Miss Meadows instead, but she proves quicker on the draw than he does, and she kills him.

Faced with a vigilante in his town, the Sheriff is suspicious that it might be Miss Meadows but he doesn’t have any evidence, other than that she’s lived in previous towns where a vigilante has been on the loose. Meanwhile, Miss Meadows learns that she’s pregnant with the Sheriff’s baby; she doesn’t tell him straight away but when she does he asks her to marry him, and she says yes. Around this time a convicted child molester called Skylar (Mulvey) moves into the neighbourhood. Miss Meadows tries to warn him off but he ignores her and starts hanging around the school. And Heather reveals that she saw Miss Meadows shoot the man in the fast food restaurant.

An incident with a priest leads to Miss Meadows killing him as well but this time she leaves behind a clue, and one that the Sheriff recognises. He confronts her, and out of love for her, tells Miss Meadows her vigilante days are over. But then on their wedding day, Skylar abducts Heather…

Miss Meadows - scene

A quirky mix of drama, comedy, romance and the kind of vigilante thrillers Charles Bronson made in the Seventies and Eighties, Miss Meadows gives Katie Holmes her best role since Batman Begins (2005). As the unfeasibly sweet and wholesome Miss Meadows (we never learn her first name), Holmes embraces the role and gives a tremendous performance, doing full justice to the duality of the character and the changes in tone such a character demands. It’s an assured, confident performance – the kind Holmes hasn’t given in a very long time – but it’s so good that Miss Meadows the movie sadly doesn’t match the  quality of Miss Meadows the character.

While Holmes is mesmerising throughout, her understanding of the role so complete she doesn’t put a foot wrong at any point, the rest of the movie stumbles along around her, the various strands and shifts in tone not quite gelling to create a balanced, effective whole. Matching Miss Meadows with the equally good-natured Sheriff (we don’t learn either of his names) lessens the chance of any real tension between the two when his suspicions are confirmed. Because the script avoids the Sheriff experiencing any personal dilemma at all, the confrontation between the two has no depth to it at all, and it’s almost perfunctory in its execution. Similarly, the scene where Miss Meadows confronts Skylar over tea in his home feels forced because of its mixture of genteel manners and unequivocal threat.

There are other scenes and moments that don’t quite work. The cause of Miss Meadows antipathy towards wrongdoers is due to a childhood trauma that is teased out as the movie progresses, but there are clues to be had in the character’s talks with her mother (Smart). And as those clues are revealed before the full tragedy of the traumatic incident is shown, the viewer is effectively given the same information twice, leaving the incident to play out with little dramatic resonance or emotional impact. It’s poor choices like this that undermine the movie’s persuasiveness, and leave the cast adrift within scenes that often bear no relation to the ones that have gone before, or follow on. The scenes in the Sheriff’s office are the best examples of this, taking place almost in isolation of the rest of the plot, and again feeling more perfunctory than essential to the story.

It’s not all bad, though. Holmes’ mannered, skilful performance anchors the movie, and is so rich it bolsters the movie during those short stretches when she’s not on screen. Dale and Mulvey are more than competent foils for Holmes’ ultra-proper, Fifties influenced femme fatale – the scene where Miss Meadows and the Sheriff make love for the first time is worth seeing all by itself just for her delighted reaction; it’s not just their first time – and the photography by Barry Markowitz is almost painterly in its depiction of small-town life. There’s also an amusing, wistful score courtesy of Jeff Cardoni that is appropriately idiosyncratic, and matches Miss Meadows’ prim nature perfectly. And even though her script doesn’t always meet the challenges it sets itself, Hopkins is on firmer ground in her choice of shots and the way in which she places the camera to achieve the desired comic or dramatic effect (this is a very good-looking, carefully composed movie).

Rating: 5/10 – without Holmes’ assured, ironic performance, Miss Meadows would swiftly become a chore to sit through, even though the premise is a shrewd one; uneven and unsure of which impression to make, the movie aims for a John Waters-style vibe but is ultimately too lightweight to succeed completely.