“I didn’t choose any of this, you know? This chose me.”
Friday, May 1st, 1992 was day 3 of the L.A. riots. The day Rodney King said “Can we all get along?” President George H.W. Bush invoked the Insurrection Act, so California Army National Guard and federal troops were activated under the newly formed Joint Task Force Los Angeles. In L.A. and San Francisco, NBA and MLB games were moved or postponed. Van Halen, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and the WWF all cancelled events. Tension and shock spread across the country.
But also some people went to see movies. Mostly BASIC INSTINCT, which was still #1 in its seventh week. And a very small number of people must’ve went to see LEAVING NORMAL, a perfectly sweet little comedy-drama about white women. Maybe it wasn’t the best time for it. It was not a big enough release to make it onto the box office charts, and I honestly don’t remember ever hearing of it before researching this series. But if I’m gonna do Weird Summer I better cover a movie about leaving normal.
Actually it’s about a young woman named Marianne (Meg Tilly, PSYCHO II) and an older bar waitress named Darly (Christine Lahti, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS) deciding to leave a small, boring town called Normal. But I think we all get the implication.
The script is by quirky Ed Solomon, who had so far written BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE and BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY, and would go on to write SUPER MARIO BROS., MEN IN BLACK, CHARLIE’S ANGELS and NO SUDDEN MOVE. The director is straight-laced historical epic lover Edward Zwick, between GLORY and LEGENDS OF THE FALL. They make for a weird teamup. I think Zwick wins out due to the cheesy score by W.G. Snuffy Walden (The West Wing), snuffing it up. I wonder if a score by, say, Mark Mothersbaugh or somebody could’ve steered it in a more Solomon-y direction?
But it’s definitely a movie that’s on the side of misfits and underdogs, so I respect it. After a prologue about Marianne’s rough childhood, which she escapes by imagining a metaphor for the movie we’re about to see (a van flying into the Aurora Borealis), she takes a long Greyhound journey to Normal, explaining to everyone who listens that she quit the Army and is marrying Kurt (Brett Cullen, Thomas Wayne in JOKER). But she immediately realizes her mistake when Kurt hits her. She runs off with nothing but her jacket.
Meanwhile, Darly is working her last shift at the Last Call Bar because she inherited a house in Alaska, or as she puts it, “my ship has finally come in and I’m sailin the fuck out of here” so “ADIOS, SHITHOLE!” On her way out she finds Marianne crying on a bus stop bench, feels sorry for her and offers to drop her off in Portland on her way to Alaska.
Tilly is so good, and Marianne is a very likable weirdo. She seems very timid much of the time, but has made many bold decisions in her life. She gets excited and rambles about certain topics, including “triangulating the vectors” on their trip. She’s not judgmental of Darly but is very prudish compared to her and it’s funny to see her reactions. This is her expression when Darly laughingly tells her she cheated with her best friend’s husband:
Darly is tough and cynical and gets joy from telling people about her fucked up life. But she obviously has a sensitive side, including her instinct to help and protect Marianne. She’s also “part Eskimo. My grandfather on my father’s side,” kinda like Val Kilmer being part Sioux in THUNDERHEART, except she already takes some pride and interest in her heritage, telling people about whale bone carvings.
Luckily when they get to Marianne’s sister Emily (Eve Gordon, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL)’s place in Portland Darly doesn’t leave right away. Instead of being supportive to their family member who has left an abusive marriage, Emily and her husband Rich (James Eckhouse, the dad from Beverly Hills, 90210) lecture her about “being an adult means taking responsibility. It means making choices.” And she takes particular insult when she sees her clown-shaped mug from childhood in the bathroom, being used as a toothbrush holder. “Hey – that’s my happy cup!”
“That cup stealin bitch,” says Darly.
After a late night talk they decide to go to Alaska together – sneaking off without even telling her sister. And she takes the happy cup. Mugs become a motif – they end up with a collection of them along their journey.
It’s a road movie, of course, with lots of bonding, fighting, making up, meeting different odd characters, learning little lessons, revealing more about themselves. The car breaks down, they hitchhike, they get picked up by two truckers. Leon (Maury Chaykin, DEATH HUNT, NOWHERE TO HIDE, IRON EAGLE II) is a sleazy jerk who makes fun of his nephew Harry (Lenny Von Dohlen, ELECTRIC DREAMS) for writing poetry and reading famous books (Leon had never heard of Of Mice and Men and makes fun of the title). Harry is a wide-eyed, emotionally fragile guy who can’t stop crying when he reads The Grapes of Wrath, and who Marianne falls for, while Darly leads Leon on so she can steal his money and ditch him. They end up on the road with an eccentric, high vocabulary* waitress named 66 (Patrika Darbo, SPACED INVADERS) until she runs off with a rich spice and herb magnate named Dan Earl “Spicy” Jones (Peter Anderson, CERTAIN FURY) and gives them her car and Airstream trailer.
*If you’re familiar with The Walking Dead, this women’s dialogue is exactly like Eugene’s.
There are multiple scenes where Marianne is crying and Darly says something that makes her laugh. In one scene Harry gives her flowers and she looks at them and says, “They’re really lame” and they laugh. I like how much the movie tries to capture that feeling of heavy emotion being soothed by humor and friendship. There’s lots of broad, silly stuff, but there’s also a very dramatic subplot that starts when they get drunk and they’re arguing about who is a worse person and Darly says, as if it’s a dark joke, “Oh yeah? Well I split on my kid. When she was 2 years old.” She explains it and then says, “It’s fun to share, isn’t it?” (I wonder if The Lost Daughter author Elena Ferrante has seen LEAVING NORMAL?)
That information reframes some of the earlier conversations about families. And once they get to Alaska she’ll start trying to find out what happened to her kid, leading to more heartbreak and judgment from an absurdly rude nurse at the maternity ward (Rutanya Alda, CHRISTMAS EVIL, THE STUFF, RAPPIN’).
There’s actually an even harsher part where Darly is at a low point, decides to prostitute herself to an old client (James Gammon, REVENGE), and things get rapey. I’m not sure that was needed.
You know how Furiosa finally gets to The Green Place and finds out it’s a desert now? Darly gets to her property in Alaska and finds out that her house was never completely built. It’s just a frame that’s been sitting there for 18 years. So they’re living in a trailer in some woods. They find out two Native teenagers, Nuqaq (Ken Angel, THE AMY FISHER STORY) and Clyde (Darrell Dennis) have been living in a makeshift cabin on her property, and Marianne starts hanging out with them.
I knew I was pretty invested in these characters in the scene where Harry shows up in Alaska, still a trucker, now free of his dumb uncle. Marianne lights up when they talk and it seems like the happy ending for most movies, so I actually worried she would take him up on his offer to ride with him and see the country. Instead she chooses to stay, repairs her relationship with Darly, and the happy ending is that they’ve built the house with the help of Nuqaq and Clyde, and they’re all living together in it. In a prayer, Darly says, “Please bless this home— uh, family— whatever the hell this is.”
Although there was one part where they joked about kissing, I don’t take this as a coded lesbian relationship. They’re just good friends and they want to live together and semi-adopt some kids who already kind of grown up and able to live on their own – why not? I’m a sucker for movies celebrating these sort of unorthodox families. And they really set it up well early in the movie when they were staying at Marianne’s sister’s place in Portland. Marianne says, “Emily and me, we always used to dream that this was the way it was gonna be. A home. A husband sleeping next to me. Kids down the hall, lots of kids. You know – big, noisy holidays, coats on the bed, happy faces. A family. You know? I figured this was the way it was always gonna be. You know? Darly, did you ever figure that?”
“I mean, it’s not always that way,” Darly says.
You could take that to mean that everybody wants that, but not everybody gets that. Not Darly. Maybe not Marianne, who’s still young, but her two husbands so far have sucked. But the conclusion the movie comes to is that Marianne and Darly do not actually want that, or at least not in the traditional way, and that they’re happier when they accept that. When they, you know – leave normal. I’m a sucker for that message. It’s not the rarest message in the world, but it’s certainly not the dominant one in our culture.
This is only a year after THELMA & LOUISE, so it had to have been a coincidence, but it’s a pretty similar story – minus the guns and the great filmmaking. And it has a more obviously happy ending. One of those happy endings THE PLAYER warned us about. But a happy ending is what’s needed in this story.
LEAVING NORMAL is not great filmmaking by any means, but Lahti and especially Tilly are so good as these characters that it’s hard not to enjoy a sweet story about them becoming friends.
signs of the time: Darly uses the homophobic f-slur in the probly-meant-to-be-pro-gay context of joking about Marianne’s sister and husband being afraid of their son being gay.
In that scene they comment on the kid’s wrestler-themed quilt. It seems to be a guy just called Doberman now, though I think it says Doberman Pinscher at the top.
“Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak is playing in a scene where Darly is at a bar. It had already been in WILD AT HEART, which had made it a hit a year after it was released as a single. Because people who just left Normal always get really into David Lynch.