Phillip Stalworth (Phillip Irwin Cooper) is an actor in LA, although he’s not been having much luck with his career. As his mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides to head back to his hometown in the US South. His girlfriend knows this is the end for them, which allows Phillip to take a complete break from his LA life.
His return home inevitably brings up old family issues, not least his somewhat difficult relationship with his emotionally distant and seemingly selfish father (John Heard). His mother (Mariette Hartley) meanwhile is ailing, with Phillip and his sister struggling to find ways to help her.
What Phillip doesn’t expect is to reunite with Joe (Peter Stebbings), who he used to go to school with. They embark on an affair, with Phillip finally uncovering a part of himself he’s never fully dealt with before. As his hometown stay lengthens, Phillip’s feeling for Joe grow and he starts to re-evaluate what he wants from life, as well as who the people around him really are. His mother meanwhile begins to realise that maybe she wants her life to be a bit different too.
Counting For Thunder is inspired by writer/director/actor Phillip Irwin Cooper’s own experience’s when he took three years away from his career to return to his home in Alabama to deal with a family crisis. That then developed into a one man show and now this movie. As you might expect, it’s a very personal movie, and also one that could perhaps have done with a little more distance to fully tease out all the themes it’s dealing with.
There is charm to the movie, although it’s all a little uneven. Whether it’s the folksy Southern Americana setting and narration that sometimes seems a little contrived, or that its character revelations are sometimes as contradictory as they are illuminatory, there’s a sense that there was more to be mined from this story than what we’re seeing. That’s particularly true with the relationship between Phillip and his dad, where some potentially interesting complexities are suggested, particularly surrounding the father’s stunting of his son’s sexuality, both in the past and now.
However, when it comes time for the two to confront each other, the answers it tries to give ignore large parts of the father’s behaviour and what it does address it doesn’t really answer in the way it seems to think it does. The film wants to suggest an understanding for the fact family members may be imperfect but you still love them, but many will feel that the film gives the father an easy ride. It’s a situation that called for real thunder, and instead offers vague rumblings and some soup.
Likewise, Phillip embarking on his first relationship with a man in middle age is at first interestingly handled. It becomes almost a coming-of-age movie but with the coming-of-age happening several decades later than normal. It’s all rather sweet and nicely played by the rather sexy Stebbings as Joe, who also wasn’t expecting to be back in the town he grew up in. However, it then gets a little confused about what it’s doing with them towards the end. Admittedly human relationships are often messy and everything doesn’t have a nice, neat explanation and resoution, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling there’s more to all this that hasn’t been addressed.
These moments of emotional and thematic messiness probably wouldn’t matter at all (indeed, they’d probably feel like they were reflective of real-life), if there wasn’t a slight twee-ness to much of what’s going on around it.
The twee-ness on its own works quite well (even if there are moments it threatens to drown in down-home metaphors). There’s a sweetness and homeliness to the story, with an agreeable sense of domesticity and quiet discovery both within the family and between Phillip and Joe. Likewise, the more emotionally messy aspects are fine by themselves, but these two aspect don’t quite gel together, and while the folksy touches probably worked brilliantly on stage, here they sometimes threaten to make the whole thing seem a little hokey.
I wish I could be more unequivocally positive, as there’s a truly endearing earnestness about Counting For Thunder, and what it does extremely well is evoke a feeling of familial love despite sometimes clashing personalities. The mother’s story is also nicely handled, with a remission and then slow fading giving her an opportunity to re-evaluate the limits she’s put on her life, whether it’s the fact she’d actually quite like to curse sometimes, or that her own dreams have been constantly put on hold for others. Indeed, there are moments where it feels like she should be the focus of the movie.
Counting For Thunder has moments of humour and some of it is quite touching, but by being uneven and a little timid about confronting hard truths, it isn’t the movie it might have been.
Overall Verdict: A lot of the movie is charming, and some of the story is handled extremely well, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it’s a case of waiting for thunder that we never quite hear.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac