I recently had the chance to attend a focus group screening of Queens of Country, an unpredictable, sweet and irreverent comedy by filmmakers Christopher Pomerenke and Ryan Page. Full disclosure: Ryan is married to my best friend, which one might argue makes me biased. And maybe I did go into it with unconscious favorable bias because of my personal connections, but I did my best to view the film with an open mind.
Here’s the basic plot of the film: Jolene Gillis (Lizzy Caplan) is the dreamiest girl in a dusty no-name western town. She’s also completely obsessed with the so-called Queens of Country, the Loretta Lynns, Wanda Jacksons and Dolly Partons. Jolene is in an unhappy relationship with the hottest, richest, vainest, cheesiest, most egotistical guy in town, Rance McCoy (Ron Livingston). I mean, come on, even his name oozes. Jolene and Rance have a relationship of convenience — Rance wants the hottest piece of ass in town and Jolene is holding on to something that once felt right but now just keeps her housed and fed. And the boy can dance. Not in that new-country sort of way, but in the old-school, two-steppin’ kind of way. Jolene wants to win the grand prize in the local dance competition, a trip to Dollywood.
Leading up to the competition, however, fate intervenes in the form of a lost iPod Jolene discovers in the men’s bathroom of a local gas station. The iPod is filled with songs that make Jolene swoon, and she becomes obsessed with finding its owner, certain he is the man of her dreams, the one she is meant to ride off into the sunset with.
From there, a series of zany and unexpected plot twists have Jolene, Rance and their best friends — a pre-op transgendered man named Penny (Joe Lo Truglio) and her love Cleveland (Matt Walsh) — facing demons and searching for love, identity and a dance competition trophy.
The screenplay, which was written by Pomerenke, Page and Serene Dominic, was original, to say the least. Each character is an archetype: the pure-of-spirit beauty and her less-than-pure misogynistic prince, the non-traditional couple for whom love sees no gender, even the mentally unstable mechanic. But although these larger-than-life personalities and quirky plot twists could have easily taken the movie over the edge to absurdity, the film’s heart keeps it unexpectedly grounded. I was particularly taken by the relationship between Penny and Cleveland — at first glance they seem to be little more than a plot gag, but Walsh and Lo Truglio’s nuanced performances make them the emotional center of the film.
I have long had a crush on Livingston and Caplan, and this film only strengthened my fan worship. After obsessing over the uproarious Party Down all summer and subsequently mourning its early demise, I was particularly happy to get a more-than-satisfying Lizzy Caplan fix.
I was pleasantly surprised by Queens of Country. I’ve seen Page and Pomerenke’s previous films — The Heart is a Drum Machine and Blood into Wine — both entertaining documentaries with a musical bent. This first foray into feature films was far more skillfully put together than I expected. I don’t mean to say I had low expectations, I just mean it didn’t look like their first rodeo. They were smart to keep music at the core of their film, as they obviously know what they’re doing in this arena. I have high hopes for the film, as I think there is an audience out there between the terrific cast, the foot-tapping soundtrack and, of course, the nod to the Arizona high desert. Word is the film will be released in February 2011 … I look forward to seeing it again when it hits theaters.