Citizen Ruth (1996)
Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Tippi Hedren, Burt Reynolds, Alicia Witt, Diane Ladd. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne.
Ruth is a single indigent woman, probably in her late twenties, arrested one day when she’s found unconscious after huffing paint. She’s been arrested many times, and has had children removed from her custody, and now the judge has had enough. He’s asking the prosecutor to try her for felony endangerment of her fetus, prophetically uttering, “I hope I’m not setting a precedent here.” Before she is sent to lockup, the judge tells her that he’ll reduce the charges if Ruth will abort the baby.
At her lowest moment, she asks God for help, and within a minute, she is joined in her holding cell by a group of anti-abortion protestors. They see Ruth’s plight and offer to take care of her, hoping to counsel her away from the abortion. Now Ruth is a symbol for a cause, but do her new friends care about her, or only about her unborn child and the message its birth will send to pro-choicers?
When she spends some time with the pro-choicers, she asks them a question they don’t have an answer for: do they still care about her freedom to choose even if she chooses to have the baby? As long as she’s not being coerced into having it, can she still be the symbol they wish her to be?
There’s a little bit of stereotyping in presenting the people on both sides of this battle, but darn it if it isn’t spot-on stereotyping. I recognize and sympathize with people in each of the camps, and if they seem a bit cartoonish, they aren’t really that exaggerated. The film doesn’t seem to take a position on either side of the debate, but it does make the point that Ruth, who can charitably be called not the brightest of women, knows a lot more about what she wants than anyone’s giving her credit for, and that in their eagerness to gain ground in this tug o’ war, they aren’t taking the time to understand the person they’re tugging at.
Citizen Ruth has a lot going for it: a thoughtful and creative script, some excellent acting by Laura Dern, and some really good laughs from unexpected places. Despite all this, it’s still a slightly unsatisfying film. For all its effort to make Ruth a real character among real people in a real social struggle, it doesn’t do very much to develop anyone else as more than a person serving a cause, except maybe the teenaged daughter of one of her pro-life patrons (Alicia Witt) and the bodyguard for her pro-choice supporters (M. C. Gainey), so that what’s really mild stereotyping comes across as full-blown, thoughtless stereotyping with no imagination. A film that begs its characters to get to know the person huffing that paint should make some effort to present those characters also as real people.
It’s still worth a look for its daring premise and for Dern’s very funny choices. This is Alexander Payne’s first full-length feature, and it feels like a starter kit for what came later, and it’s so far his only movie not to be nominated for an Academy Award. Not a great film, but promising enough.