One of the joys of regular moviegoing is being taken to places that were never on your itinerary. The setting of this modest indie is a vast heartland canvas that's as familiar as a family heirloom, but in the patient hands of director Ali Selim also seems wholly alien and surprisingly fresh. Sweet Land is not just another sunshiny ode to the rustic splendor of the plains, but a canny exploration of loneliness, community and the immigrant experience at the root of America's family tree. If that all sounds like a stroll down a well-beaten path, it is but the film works well thanks to the outstanding cast, led by Elisabeth Reaser's luminous performance. She's a true revelation as Inge, a beautiful and spirited German mail-order bride in 1920, who steps off the train with her phonograph player tucked under her arm, and into a buttoned-down Minnesota farming town that isn't sure what to make of her. Equally wary is her would-be husband Olaf (Tim Guinee), a modest, gentle Norwegian who is far too shy to embrace her, even if they could understand each other. They're also kept apart by the politics of the town elders; the post-war xenophobia keeps them from marrying. Her innate "Germanness," her love of music and waltzing on the porch, and even the strength of her coffee, threaten local morality. That love grows in spite of said obstacles isn't surprising so much as it is deeply edifying. What's surprising is that Selim, previously known as director of TV commercials, has the grace to let scenes play out naturally, slowly revealing character in authentic ways. The naturalism is thrown slightly off kilter by Alan Cumming's goofy overexuberance as the carefree neighbor he comes off a bit like Willy Wonka with a wardrobe borrowed from a Dexy's Midnight Runner video. The only other sour note is a clunky framing device that employs dual flashbacks and flash forwards. These are mere pimples on a film that is often unbearably lovely, filled with rippling, russet-colored fields of grain, and glorious golden sunsets that look as warm and inviting as a favorite blanket. Ignored by the big festivals, and devoid of any sort of "buzz" from the chattering classes, Sweet Land is the sort of humble little gem that might not be on any radar, but a little word-of-mouth should work wonders.
Showing at the AMC Forum 30, 44681 Mound Rd., Sterling Heights; 586-254-5663.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.