It’s far too easy for jaded cynics from the coasts to think of the U.S.’s “heartland” (a conception that itself is a complicated one) as a monolithic culture of guns, jingoism and intolerance. A studied rebuke to the dismissive idea of the flyover state, WE ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS from directors AJ Schnack and David Wilson challenges any number of these presumptions in its investigation of Branson, Missouri–a town with a population of about 10,000 that channels some 7.5 million tourists through it on an annual basis.
Branson, situated in the highland region of the Ozarks, appropriates the neon flash of Broadway and Vegas, but promises an ideal of wholesome entertainment bereft of uncouth language or nudity–essentially anything that could easily be considered offensive by social conservatives. In the tradition of much escapist entertainment, performances in Branson’s theaters seem infused with a Stepford-esque aesthetic that belies complicated realities: a saccharine ode to the American flag and the U.S. armed forces is presented without consideration for the terrible costs of war.
Thankfully, Wilson and Schnack in their film choose to focus on subjects that both subtly and overtly challenge the notion of what it means to be both patriotic and American in the heart of the Bible Belt. The familial dynasty of the Lennons, a group of staunch Democrats relocated from California, figures prominently in the film; a scene in which Bill Lennon goes toe-to-toe with a right-leaning radio host over the myth of trickle-down economics is particularly rewarding.
Song-and-dancer and single mother Elisha Conner’s foul-mouthed responses to situations and people is just as entertaining as anything you’re likely to find in one of Branson’s theaters. Mayor Raeanne Presley shoulders the responsibility of caring for a tourist industry taking a hit from the wider economic downturn. But the most moving story is that of Chip Holderman, a gay father of two sons who feels pressure to self-regulate the expression of his sexuality, and is forced to reckon with the bigotry of his ex-wife’s new husband in the care of his children.
With a lot of narrative threads to weave, WE ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS could easily be derailed into a tangled knot of characters and stories, but the film is impeccably shepherded. The festival’s jury seemed to agree: the film on Tuesday nabbed the special jury prize for directing.