There is a crude, homespun quality to Crossroads of America from director Gabrielle Muller and writer/star Laura Sampson Hemingway. The title reflects the main characters’ unhappy stagnation;Their Indiana locale is the intersection of numerous highways and interstates that lead to exciting, far-off places, but they are resigned to their tumbledown town with kitschy plastic lawn flamingos, cramped houses, and endless trips to fast food joints. Muller artfully captures the dull despair of the working class and American Midwest in this raw portrait of fractured family dynamics.
Crossroads of America is a tale of two sisters with a wealth of trauma and unresolved conflict between them. After the striking, shrewd Ellie (Natalia Ortonowska) was left paralyzed in a drunk driving accident, Sandy, a recovering alcoholic, returns to care for her in their dysfunctional family home. Beneath her sullen and irate exterior, Sandy hides a wellspring of pain. She struggles with school and engages in sex work as her alter ego “Angel”, but it is difficult to indulge in her fantasy life when the harsh reality of her restrictive, complex family is just outside her door. The small house does not have enough room to hold the sisters, their part-time psychic, fame-chasing mother Glenda (Kaye Tuckerman), and their anxious younger brother Carlos without igniting the family’s unresolved tensions.
Despite their volatile sparring, Ellie and Sandy do share a deep bond, but they are too close for comfort in the cramped house, the home’s overbearing restriction is emphasized in the tight close-ups. Their knotty kinship and frustrations with their new living situation is the most intriguing aspect of the film, particularly due to the unvarnished lead performances from Sampson and Ortonowska; they truly capture the dynamic tides of sisterly relationships.
In several intriguing sequences, Muller uses dioramas with chiaroscuro lighting (a stark contrast between light and dark) where the actors stand in dramatic poses that represent their characters’ emotional interiority. These beautiful surrealist images give Crossroads of America a unique theatrical edge and these haunting shots signal the dark secrets and mental health issues that plague the family. Crossroads of America closely scrutinizes very unhappy people trapped in a miserable place. It burns with an discomforting honesty that – much like a car crash – leaves you unable to look away, yet it never wallows in despair, thanks to Hemingway and Muller’s empathetic eye. There are several lighter moments that offer hope that the family will find a way to overcome their challenges—despite everything working against them.
In lesser hands, the film would feel too soggy and esoteric, but Hemingway and Muller suffuse Crossroads of America with an authentic urgency that enthralls the viewer.
The film is available to stream on Prime Video and was released July 17, 2020 in the US and UK.
Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Baby It’s You, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian and does social media for Passion River Films. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss.