The Movie: “Running On Empty”
1988, starring Judd Hirsch (from a sitcom called “Taxi”), Christine Lahti (who won a Golden Globe one time but was IN THE BATHROOM when the award was given and the whole live telecast had to STOP while they waited on her to wash her hands and come out, and as such is the survivor of embarrassment on a truly epic scale), Martha Plimpton (AWESOME in EVERYTHING) and River Phoenix (Indiana Jones, junior edition).
The Plot: Danny’s family doesn’t have much money, but in every other way, you’d think he had it all. His parents are loving, interesting people who talk to him like he’s a rational person and five him a lot of trust. His younger brother is almost as funny as he is annoying, which is pretty good as far as younger brothers go. He’s an incredibly gifted piano student, as the music teacher at his new school has almost instantly discovered; in fact, he might get to try out for Juilliard. And that music teacher has a daughter, Lorna, who’s smart, funny and definitely as into him as he is into her.
The problem is that nobody at his new school — including Lorna — knows Danny’s real name, or anything about the life he actually leads. His family has been on the run from the FBI since the early 1970s when Danny was just a toddler. Mom and Dad opposed the Vietnam War, joined a radical group perhaps similar to the Weather Underground, and bombed a napalm laboratory. What they didn’t realize when they set the bomb was that somebody was still inside.
Now they move from city to city, never telling the truth to anyone but each other. But Danny’s in his senior year of high school now. Does he ever get to go to college? To use his incredible musical talent? Can he ever tell the truth about himself to Lorna? If he can’t, then how can he ever honestly let her love him? And now the FBI seems to have caught up with them again —
The Love: Oh, my heart. Danny and Lorna just kill me, every time. Lorna is played by Martha Plimpton (yes! The grandma from “Raising Hope”!), and Danny is played by the late River Phoenix, who sadly was the Heath Ledger of his era, an incredibly talented, devastatingly handsome actor whose life ended too soon because of drugs. At the time, Plimpton and Phoenix were involved in real life; I hate saying the chemistry shows, because actors are actors and they are in the business of faking attraction so expertly we believe it, but … the chemistry shows. Lorna is snarky and funny, and she never lets Danny get away with anything. This is maybe why he feels so compelled to be honest with her, though telling the truth is the one thing his parents have conditioned him, all his life, never to do.
And they have such an offbeat, quirky, real attraction. It’s not all mood lighting and pop songs on the soundtrack; it’s Danny trying on stupid hats in her room, or both of them trying not to crack up when they’re cooking partners in home ec, or a long day on the beach that is simultaneously incredibly romantic and deeply heartbreaking — because every time he wants to tell her the truth about something, he instead runs ahead of her along the shore. And he runs ahead a lot.
There’s a moment between them that I’ve cited as a fabulous example of storytelling through a simple gesture. At one point, Danny sneaks into Lorna’s room late at night – they’ve been fighting — and when she is startled awake, he tells her to come downstairs with him. She does. Then he insists they go outside. For a moment, Lorna’s weirded out and we are too, a little. What kind of guy does this? What is he playing at?
Then Lorna says she can’t go outside, because it’s cold and she has bare feet. Danny instantly kneels down and unlaces his own shoes to give to her.
BAM. You know, in that moment, no matter how weird Danny is acting, he would never, ever hurt Lorna. He’ll brave the cold himself rather than see her uncomfortable. Her trust in him returns, along with our trust in him. It’s a phenomenal piece of characterization, and a great relationship scene.
The Best Parts: As great as the romance is, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the centerpiece of the movie is really about Danny’s relationship with his parents. They’re so great to him in so many ways — but it’s in large part because they’re aware that they have royally screwed him over. Also, you realize how much the mom and dad don’t agree on what should happen to Danny next; it’s a difference so profound that you wonder whether they’d even still be married if they didn’t have to sustain this family on the run.
The Worst Parts> There’s honestly not a bad scene in this movie. There is one bad line, though, amid one of the actual greatest scenes — when Danny’s mother meets up with her own dad, whom she hasn’t laid eyes on in almost 20 years. It would be criminal of me to spoil this scene, but let’s just say that the whole thing goes about making this point subtly and yet powerfully — but then they make the grandfather just spell it all out, like we’re idiots who couldn’t get that for ourselves. We got it, honestly.
So highly recommended. Available on Netflix, too.
If you foliow me on Twitter (and if not, why not?), then you’ve seen the announcement of a tour date in New Zealand! I’ll be at the Next Page bookstore at 2 pm on March 31, ready to sign and answer questions and whatever else might be in store. Yes, I’ll be touring Australia before that, but I haven’t received solid dates for that yet; I hope to turn that around this week, though!