Those familiar with the Disney insignia behind the production of The Straight Story, or with the graphic, disturbing oeuvre behind its director, David Lynch, should both leave at least a few of their preconceptions at the door. In actuality, The Straight Story is squeaky clean where content is concerned; its only scene of violence involves a deer being hit by a car, and even this takes place completely off-screen. And yet the film lacks the fast pace, cartoon craziness and epic grandeur of Disney's supposedly tame animated and live action entries in the family film genre, all of which are also considered squeaky clean, and all of which too often condescend to both adults and children alike. The Straight Story is anything but condescending, despite the fact that it occasionally steps up to a Midwestern, family-values soapbox and gives a few low-key sermons on the subject. What's left is skeletal but enormously affecting: 74-year-old Alvin Straight (played by veteran actor Richard Farnsworth in his final role) decides to patch a long-standing quarrel with his brother Lyle and drives a John Deere lawnmower more than two hundred miles across Iowa and Wisconsin to do it. Along the way, camera shots of small, Midwestern towns, amber waves of grain, starry skies and anything else wide and open are long but extraordinarily beautiful and Angelo Badalamenti's score is appropriately folksy and low-key.
The film’s narrative thrust concentrates on the patience and wisdom Straight has collected over an entire life's journey through peace and war, ease and difficulty--which he in turn metes out to a pregnant runaway, a group of cyclists, and two quarreling, twin-brother auto mechanics, among other characters. Slow and steady journeys like this one are often thought to lose the attention of children, but Farnsworth's performance has a grandfatherly element that just might keep kids interested until Straight's underplayed, genuinely moving reconciliation with his brother. In fact, perhaps kids’ omni-curiosity and subsequent willingness to explore even the humblest of topics might lead their attention to some of the film’s simple treasures, which an adult might point out with more emphasis. For instance, Alvin’s daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) has a severe speech impediment, and attentive children might notice that this doesn’t affect her intelligence at all. In this case, a generic lesson about surface judgments versus internal value might be appropriate. Similarly, Alvin’s old age might be a jumping-off point for a discussion about the elderly—how Grandma’s or Grandpa’s or anyone else’s concerns and vulnerabilities bear close resemblance to our own, and how sympathy, understanding, and respect are all in order for both their wisdom and their frailty. For ample topics along these lines and plenty of pretty pictures, The Straight Story is a sure bet.