When people think of old movies, they think black and white, grainy, studio-driven and set bound. It’s a common go-to for most casual movie fans but for a film lover, there are no old movies, only classics. There are, however, relics. Movies from not just a different time but a different state of mind, and for me, the independent films of the 1980s and the 1990s are now the relics of cinema. Movies made decades before them seem less dated, movies made just a few years after them seem a century ahead. But I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way. For me, the movie most representative of what I’m talking about is the 1992 independent feature Gas Food Lodging, directed by Allison Anders and starring Brooke Adams, Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk. Filled with promise, it went nowhere and the cast, with the mild exception of Ms. Balk, got no real boost from its acclaim. Shortly afterwards, independent movies starting getting higher budgets, bigger celebrity star turns and technology put them on the same plane as the studios.
Allison Anders based her movie on a young adult fiction book by Richard Peck titled Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt and adapted the screenplay herself. Like any truly independent movie, this one was driven largely by one person and that person was Anders. She cast Brooke Adams, former model and one time movie star with works like Days of Heaven and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both 1978) under her belt, in the lead role of a single mom working as a waitress in a desert town while raising two daughters. The two daughters were played by Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk, both having already made a splash in previous films, most notably Say Anything… (1989) and Return to Oz (1985) respectively.
The story of Gas Food Lodging is a coming of age story for Shade (Balk), with her sister, Trudi (Skye), and mother, Nora (Adams), battling it out as Shade tries to figure out her place in the world. Like the independents of the 1980s and 1990s, Gas Food Lodging keeps its sets minimal, its locations spare and the special effects budget to the penny jar. It’s a story about three women coming to terms with each other and life and, as you might expect, made almost no impact at the box office. But in terms of career resurgence, well, okay, it didn’t do too well there either.
Though Brooke Adams gives the best performance of her career, as does Skye, it is Fairuza Balk that truly stood out when I saw the movie for the first time back in 1992. I was sure that all three of them would have strong offers following the film’s release but was positive that Balk, especially, would have a career filled with awards and acclaim. I still view her performance here and in Imaginary Crimes (1994) as two of the best young actor performances I’ve seen but Hollywood, never one to know what to do with anything that cannot be easily prepackaged and sold, was clueless about Balk and her fiery eyes confused the living hell out of them. She got The Craft (1996) and a small role in American History X (1998) and then, later, an even smaller role in Almost Famous (2000) before it became clear that no big career lay ahead of her (yet… she’s still active and doing great work).
By the 2000′s independent features were pulling in big names and The Sundance Festival had all of Hollywood rushing to buy whatever movie got the most applause. Independent features looked more and more like regular studio productions and the definition of what an independent film was became murky. Everything from Pulp Fiction (1994) to District 9 (2009) fits into the schemata of “independent film” but when I think of the nineties, and movies like this, Smoke Signals (1998), Daughters of the Dust (1991), and Bottle Rocket (1996), the term “independent film” actually means something. Although I can’t help but notice that Allison Anders, Chris Eyre and Julie Dash didn’t go nearly as far with their careers as Wes Anderson. Is that just because Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with stories of women’s lives and Native and African American culture and heritage or did they just not care? Probably a little of both. Not to take anything away from Wes Anderson of course. His talents were as obvious then as they are now, it’s just that independent film was a chance for anyone and everyone to make movies but it turns out it didn’t mean that much in the end.
Gas Food Lodging is a relic from the past now. It belongs to an era in which making a movie without studio support was an uphill climb with little room for error. A young director couldn’t just pull out her phone, shoot a movie, edit it on her laptop and add special effects with Adobe After Effects. She had to get backing, and equipment – heavy, expensive equipment – and a crew, and a cast, and pay for film processing and rent out time and space for editing, and then try to get someone, anyone, to see it. It meant commitment and dedication and was a clear signal you loved the craft of making movies because who in their right mind would go to that much trouble if they didn’t? And when it was over, the only thing to do was sit back and hope. The problem was, since independent movies like this were, by definition, low-budget, they didn’t draw in big distributors willing to put money on the line for a small, simple yet complex story of a young girl and her mother and sister.
Fairuza Balk received the Independent Spirit Award for Best Actress for the movie and Anders received the Best New Director award from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. But Adams and Skye deserve mention as well for their excellent work. They don’t make movies like this anymore but if you want to see what a truly independent movie from the 1990s looks like, look no further than Gas Food Lodging, streaming under the Single Moms theme on FilmStruck until April 7, 2017.