WHEN I first read the synopsis of Dixieland, my thoughts were: Great, just what we need, another movie about the South full of lazy tropes and regional stereotyping, where all the white people are racist caricatures with Foghorn Leghorn accents delivered by actors who are actually New Yorkers or British.
Thankfully, Dixieland proved me, and the stereotypes, wrong.
This amazing indie film from writer/director Hank Bedford—shot in 18 days for only $500,000—takes us to the wrong side of the tracks for sure. But it’s an unblinking yet completely realistic look at life in the semirural, economically devastated post-recession South, in this case in and around Jackson and Pearl, Mississippi.
This is less like the Old South and more like the Dirty South, where the drug trade dominates the economy of these dead-end towns full of trailers and sick people who can’t pay their medical bills, where aimless white boys like protagonist Kermit (Chris Zylka) dip snuff while listening not to country music but to hip hop, and drive “fly” new black Cadillacs instead of pickup trucks.
Zylka and co-star Riley Keough—who co-produced the film—play Kermit and Rachel, two star-crossed lovers who have a whirlwind romance the day Kermit returns from a two-year prison sentence for attempting to kill his mother’s onetime lover, owner of a local strip club where his mom once danced.
(The mother is played by none other than Faith Hill, who brings not only hefty star power to this extremely low-budget effort but her very impressive acting chops. Steve Earle also stars as Kermit’s affable uncle, brother to his late dad. Two very nice gets for Bedford, who obviously couldn’t afford to pay them more than union scale.)
Zylka expertly eschews stereotyping in his utterly modern portrayal of the essential insecurity behind the bravado of this small town white boy—who is handy with his fists but also aspires to cut men’s hair for a living, since he became “good with clippers” cutting other inmates’ hair in prison.
Ultimately, his tale is a sad one as his dreams of going straight quickly vanish. Importantly, the film portrays his fateful decision not moralistically, but economically—there’s literally no way to make money in this town other than selling drugs, thus it’s almost impossible to rehabilitate as society expects and demands.
Keough is pitch-perfect in channeling the nonchalant sexiness of Rachel, who faces a decision point of her own in whether or not to continue dancing in the same strip club Kermit’s mother once did.
In the Q&A afterward Bedford readily admitted that his close-framed, hand-held shooting style was driven by budget concerns —they couldn’t even afford lights, and used only natural light.
That said, the quick-cut, naturalist style works perfectly well for this almost documentary-like feel—indeed, Bedford interchanges the story with interviews of local townspeople speaking directly to the camera about stories from their own, real, lives in this town. – Jim Morekis