Summer movies now arrive on two tracks. There are the action-saturated blockbusters — the ones that dominate the entertainment-media complex — and there are the smaller, quieter, idiosyncratic films that qualify as ”counterprogramming.” The beauty of the setup is that the two tracks don’t necessarily compete. The sheer pervasiveness of blockbusters feeds everyone’s appetite for movies (it’s no accident they’re called popcorn movies: You don’t want to stop eating). The essence of counterprogramming is that, having gorged on spectacle, we’re that much more eager for an alternative, for something that feeds the soul as well as the senses. Here’s a roundup of notable small releases set to open this month.
Peter Fonda, the star of Ulee’s Gold, has never been a particularly ingratiating actor, and in middle age his long-faced handsomeness has taken on a spooky, otherworldly aura. His eyes gleam with silent dread; his mouth refuses to curl into a smile. If he sometimes recalls his father, Henry Fonda, it’s the Henry Fonda of The Wrong Man or Once Upon a Time in the West — the legend crumbling in the face of catastrophe.
In Ulee’s Gold, written and directed by Victor Nunez, Fonda gives the performance of his life as Ulee Jackson, a Florida beekeeper in his mid-50s who is struggling to hold his family together. Ulee (short for Ulysses) is a Vietnam veteran who has lost almost everything he cares about. His wife died several years ago, and his son is a criminal screwup, a thief who has landed himself in prison, leaving Ulee to raise two granddaughters. Ulee, a man of profound selflessness — a dreamer who’s begun to bury his dreams — has grown so accustomed to sacrifice that all he wants is to see that sacrifice bear fruit. Fonda, playing this figure of almost biblical rectitude, gives him haunted undercurrents that hint at something more complex than decency, a righteousness that can wound as easily as it heals. Ulee’s profession, handed down from his father and grandfather, is harvesting honey from swarms of bees. His power lies in his willingness to face forces that sting.
Fonda’s acting may seem minimalist, yet he hypnotizes the camera with a gaze that calls up a bottomless well of anger, yearning, and loss. Ulee’s Gold is a story of redemption, and Nunez doesn’t make redemption look any easier than it is. Ulee’s daughter-in-law (Christine Dunford), a self-destructive hellion, uses drugs to empty herself of feeling, and though Ulee despises her flight from responsibility, he has no choice but to save her. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s also saving himself.
As Ulee confronts his son’s underworld past, a nightmare Nunez makes all the more riveting by playing it not for ”thrills” but for desperate realism, his journey becomes a blind lunge toward grace. Fonda’s heavy-lidded suspicion and voice of steel are occasionally reminiscent of Clint Eastwood, only with a hint of tenderness that can wrench your heart. The melting strains of Van Morrison’s ”Tupelo Honey” over the closing credits are like a gift to the audience. As Ulee’s Gold reveals, it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. For the first time, there’s love in Peter Fonda’s acting. A