DOWN IN THE VALLEY written and directed by David Jacobson, with Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Bruce Dern and Rory Culkin. 117 minutes. A ThinkFilm release. Opens Friday (May 19). For venues and times, see Movies, page 110. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Cannes - Evan Rachel Wood has the face of a Hallmark angel, which makes her perfect for some of Hollywood's nastiest teen roles.
In Thirteen she morphed from Mommy's little girl into thrill-seeking slut avenger. In Pretty Persuasion she brought a high school to its knees from behind that simple pale oval of a face. She's a Seventeen cover girl with Christina Ricci potential.
In Cannes 2005 for the premiere of Down In The Valley, she's a thoughtful 17-year-old trying to pick her way through the traps movies set for young women.
"I don't purposely go for girls who get into trouble," she says. "I just go for something real." In terms of scripts, she continues, "there's not too much else out there. There's also the ditsy schoolgirl, but I'd much rather go for this."
Continuing her spree of characters who don't exactly make the best choices, she plays a bored-but-sensitive California Valley girl who takes up with a displaced cowboy twice her age, played by Ed Norton.
It's not creepy, though, she says. "It's not a Lolita relationship. It's not the older guy lusting after the younger girl," Wood asserts. "He's very much like a boy in the film. It was like acting opposite somebody my own age, because the characters are supposed to be on the same level. And they really are in love. It's supposed to be very sweet."
Ed Norton has a hard time selling sweet on screen, but it's exactly that tension between his character's innocence and his innate Ed Norton-ness that keeps the romance in Down In The Valley oscillating. It also helps that their director let Wood and Norton find the spark between them on their own.
"In the first love scene in the movie," Wood recalls, "David Jacobson didn't really tell us what to do. None of it was mapped out for us. He said "Action," and I looked around and asked Ed, 'Ohmigod, what are we doing right now?'
"And he goes, 'I dunno, just go!'
"And so, like, we just went. And we just did it. And, like, it just made it so much better and so much more real and funnier and just easy."
She never treated Norton as a mentor on set, she says. "That would have given it more of that fatherly vibe, and that would've been weird. It's hard acting with someone you really look up to, because when you're in the scene you just want to stop and watch them.
"It was the first time I worked opposite a male I really looked up to. Usually it's been women."
Wood's scenes with Holly Hunter in Thirteen and Joan Allen in The Upside Of Anger cut to the core of that volcanic bond between mothers and daughters.
"With women you just get in there and you're right there with them," she says, comparing her movies. "It's a totally different experience when it's a guy, and he's your love interest."
Pretty Persuasion was "the hardest film I've ever had to do," she says, but admits that, "with the wig and the vibe I was giving off, it was fun looking in the mirror and having no idea who that was."
Wood, who grew up watching her theatre-world parents put on Shakespeare and Chekhov in North Carolina, clearly has a taste for adventure in acting. That may be why she's become the rebel daughter of the moment.
When NOW published an interview I did with Thirteen director Catherine Hardwicke, I got an e-mail from a teenage girl in Madagascar. The film had changed her life, and she was desperate to reach the director. Wood's not surprised.
"It's such a common feeling that Tracy goes through," she says of her teenaged character. "The majority of us have gone through a rough time with our mothers when we need to push away and want to throw in their faces how over them we are."
DOWN IN THE VALLEY (David Jacobson) Rating: NNN
Edward Norton stars as a boyish cowboy sociopath who takes up with Valley girl Evan Rachel Wood. These two strong actors together create some beautiful, unsettling scenes, but the movie feels unsettled, too, lurching from California naturalism, with its strip malls and bored white kids, to weird, undigested riffs on other movies.
Norton's character is a West Coast Midnight Cowboy who erupts into a Travis Bickle moment mid-film. It's distracting. Jacobson, who wrote and directed, clearly has big ambitions, but the film gets in the way of its own charms.