There's an aspect of ritual to the road trip in Bonneville that lifts it above the "life is a journey" cliché: It's a passage of grief as much as enlightenment. Forced to surrender the ashes of her recently deceased husband to his upright daughter, Arvilla Holden (Jessica Lange) takes her two closest friends, one boisterous and one prim, along for the ride from Pocatello, Idaho, to Santa Barbara, Calif.
The conflict between breezy Arvilla and tightly wound daughter, Francine (Christine Baranski), is as much about who controls the memory of the late Joe as who possesses his earthly remains. Will the anthropologist be remembered as a staid patriarch and academic or free-spirited world traveler? At stake in this pitched emotional battle is the pristine craftsman house Arvilla shared with Joe, packed to the rafters with artifacts from two decades of their globetrotting, but willed to Francine.
Uncertain if she'll have a home to return to, Arvilla hits the road in Joe's 1966 Pontiac Bonneville convertible, knowing where she's supposed to go, but without a clear path. In their feature film debut, screenwriter Daniel Davis and director Christopher Rowley provide the fragile, uncertain Arvilla with an angel and devil on her shoulder in the form of her supportive friends.
The vociferous Margene Cunningham (Kathy Bates) is a mischief-maker, anxious for adventure and romance, and beyond caring what anyone thinks. The moralizing Carol Brimm (Joan Allen), a Mormon who wraps herself in her beliefs like a protective cloak, is the voice of restraint and decorum. As they cross the scenic southwest in a road-trip version of Eat, Pray, Love, old assumptions are challenged, and new futures charted. In the smooth-riding Bonneville, all roads lead to solace and hope.
Cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball (Windtalkers, Be Cool) captures the stunning locales — including the Bonneville Salt Flats and Bryce Canyon National Park — in gorgeous widescreen images that would make a tourism bureau proud.
Polished visuals and confident, lived-in performances from these formidable actresses are Bonneville's best features. Bates is once again cast as the loudmouth id, and Allen as the self-censoring ego, but they bring new shadings to these familiar roles. With the more complex superego role, Lange really shines.
Initially, Arvilla's all fluttery vulnerability, but slowly her strength and resolve emerge. When Lange takes the wheel, she steers Bonneville to its destination, bringing her friends along and leaving the baggage behind.