Route 666

Watching Reese Witherspoon incandesce in the role of a sixteen-year-old girl stumbling through the reform school of hard knocks in Freeway, I was reminded of what Pauline Kael said about John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever: "There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious." Usually when men like Travolta convey that quality it catapults them to stardom; when women like Drew Barrymore do it, they're considered teen queens who simply project well to the camera. (Decades ago Tuesday Weld endured that perception problem too.)

I doubt Witherspoon will suffer the same fate; she already boasts a varied resume. In her debut at age fourteen in the 1991 weepie The Man in the Moon, she put over a "nice girl's" awakening with such unself-conscious intensity that she overpowered the movie's load of melodramatic artifice. The rest of the film has faded from memory, but I can instantly summon shots of her rapturously hugging a pillow or sizing up her first love. In Freeway, one of the ten best films of 1996 -- and one of the most egregiously ignored -- she brings excitement as well as conviction to an antiheroine named Vanessa, who never had a chance to be a "nice girl" even if she had wanted to.

The daughter of a prostitute mother (Amanda Plummer) and a crack-addict stepfather (Michael Weiss), Vanessa has salvaged a half-formed identity by force of will. Her combative, self-protective shell would suggest juvenile-delinquent cliches if Witherspoon didn't constantly express subterranean and molten feelings. We first see her struggling to sound out "The cat drinks milk" in her remedial-reading class while the teacher practices a primitive form of guided communication. Of course Vanessa looks like trouble. But she isn't malicious or sociopathic; when she finishes off that sentence, she celebrates by locking lips with her boyfriend Chopper (Bokeem Woodbine).

This girl-woman is a handful; she won't take a tumble when the world wants her to lie down. Nor will she conform to anyone's notion of a prime candidate for rehabilitation. Not preconscious but premoral (though she does believe in God), she'll do anything to survive. She's a feisty young animal: When faced with the menace of foster care, she recharges the meaning of fight or flight. And when she sets out for the daydream haven of "grandmother's house" (in this case, grandmother's mobile home), only to be picked up by a notorious freeway killer, she fights and flees simultaneously.

The comic-strip opening credits feature variations on the Big Bad Wolf slavering over and menacing a perky pubescent gal. Tyro writer-director Matthew Bright holds his cards face up: He means to update "Little Red Riding Hood," a fairy tale rife with erotic innuendo as well as intimations of rape. Connoisseurs of the story may realize that Bright is also taking it back to where it once belonged. As scholar-translator Jack Zipes recounts in his fascinating work of criticism and folklore The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, the original folktale was rooted in fears of wild animals and perverted grownups who attacked children walking in the woods. Folk wisdom chalked up that kind of irrational violence to black magic in general and lycanthropy in particular.

Zipes notes that in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries, charges brought against men for turning into werewolves and assaulting youngsters rivaled in number those against women for practicing witchcraft. The wolf in the Ur-story was probably a werewolf, and the girl at its center was a take-charge gal: "She shrewdly outwits the wolf and saves herself. No help from granny, hunter, or father! Clearly, the folktale was not just a warning tale, but also a celebration of a young girl's coming of age." The literary retellers of the tale, notably Charles Perrault in France and the Brothers Grimm in Germany, were responsible for transforming it from a protofeminist survival saga into the story of a naughty damsel in distress, punished for her sexuality.

Bright restores this mini-epic's pagan awfulness and wonder while adding some upsetting and funny new wrinkles. Using contemporary folklore, he recasts it with brutally dysfunctional families and street violence and a justice system that favors the well-bred and wealthy -- the world of our media-bred paranoia, the world according to Geraldo. In the 1690s, "home" was considered safe. It isn't for this girl of the 1990s: Her stepdad molests her between puffs on his crack pipe. Yet she still prefers living with him and her trick-turning mom to foster care. At one point she talks about staying at a place where she was considered to be "the biggest bitch" because she refused to change an old man's urine-stained sheets.

Vanessa's uncensored honesty keeps us off-balance and challenges everyone around her. Primitive logic leads her to ask the female cop who helped jail her family to put her up for a while. When that doesn't work, she handcuffs her caseworker (Conchata Ferrell) to her bed, steals the woman's car, bids farewell to Chopper (who bequeaths his gun to her), and sets out for Grandmother's trailer park. And when the car breaks down, a collegiate type in an elbow-patched jacket lends her a hand.

The ominous name "Bob Wolverton" clues you in from the outset that this guy is going to be the wolf. The comic terrors of the situation (and the movie's stroke of bad-ass brilliance) emerge from the way Wolverton can suss out Vanessa's needs and, with pseudotherapy, soften her up for the kill. He is, you see, a child psychologist, and he uses his professional training to set his wary friend at ease. When I reviewed A Time to Kill, I speculated, "What's next for Kiefer Sutherland -- a creature feature?" Well, he's playing a werewolf of sorts, and dang me if it isn't the right choice for him. Sutherland is superbly hypocritical as the normal-seeming Wolverton, who asks leading questions with an unruffled air that's a little too breezily empathic.

He and Witherspoon are terrific at giving us the queasies, as Vanessa divulges her secrets with wrenching candor and Wolverton pushes for ever more intimate revelations. It's a nightmare illustration of paternalism's psychic sabotage. Vanessa opens up to a shrink who turns out to get off on her degradation: Her existential freeway has no exit. And just as she seals her claim on our concern and even affection, Bright seals his claim on our attention: He stages the daringly prolonged three-part sequence with equal amounts of gritty sensitivity and thriller craft, up through the horrifying moment when Vanessa realizes that Wolverton is the freeway killer. The director's choices emphasize the confusion of sexual titillation and pent-up violence, reaching an apex of creepiness when Wolverton takes a straight razor to Vanessa's ponytail.

The movie peaks in this episode and its immediate aftermath, but it doesn't peter out. As Wolverton is transformed into a physical monster (to the grief of his picture-perfect wife -- played by Brooke Shields!) and two cops, played by Dan Hedaya and Wolfgang Bodison, toss Vanessa into the clink, Bright appropriates the conventions of all manner of exploitation pictures, including girls-in-chains films and Latin gang chronicles. (Hedaya does a perfect deadpan working stiff; Bodison starts shakily, then finds his groove.) Bright uses genre riffs to fuel Vanessa's evolution from a crazy, misunderstood kid to a dangerous young woman who's open to anything, from knife fighting to the love of a lesbian.

In the most explosive comic moment, Vanessa faces the man she mutilated and taunts him for getting beaten with "the ugly stick." Who beat Bright with the talent stick? I hated Bright's script for Guncrazy (directed by Tamra Davis). In Freeway he and his cinematographer, the estimable John Thomas, sustain an "artploitation," fractured-fairy-tale tone to the triumphant yet volatile end. They manage to insinuate Vanessa's point of view while not obscuring the world around her: I love the subtle camera move at the beginning that reads "The cat drinks milk" from right to left and then scans over to the teacher and the classroom, as if the words were Hebrew or the language of a reading-impaired kid. Throughout, they light Witherspoon so that we can discern any hint of softness or flexibility remaining under Vanessa's hardening skin.

Freeway affects adults the way fairy tales (the unexpurgated ones, anyway) do kids: as an unruly and imaginative odyssey that offers the catharsis of "The End" rather than a predigested moral. Bright's Red Riding Hood could go to either Heaven or Hell -- but at least she'll go there independently. The filmmaker has both brought her into the 21st Century and respected her origins. You could say he's given her a retrofit.

Freeway.
Written and directed by Matthew Bright; with Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Brooke Shields, Amanda Plummer, Dan Hedaya, Conchata Ferrell, Bokeem Woodbine, and Wolfgang Bodison.

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