Nola (2003)

Nola (Emmy Rossum) has finally decided to run away from her home in Kansas — which contains her abusive stepfather — and try to make it in New York City. Her first night, she sleeps on the street and in Central Park. On her second day, she finds a job at a local diner, befriends the cook, Ben (James Badge Dale), and sleeps on his couch. From here it progresses in a way you likely wouldn’t expect and hits on too many notes to begin to describe. Suffice to say that Nola doesn’t remain working in the diner for long, and an ulterior motive for coming to New York is revealed.

Nola plays out like a fairy tale. The lighting and focus are soft, the music is fruity, the dialogue is trite, the characters are arch, and everything comes together so easily that you’d assume it was written for a 6-year-old — even though it’s an R-rated dramedy; it got that rating due to a few colorful choices of language and maybe because some of its themes are a little too much for the kids to handle. It’s certainly an odd and interesting film in the way that it has been put together.

It’s all silly. It fits together too easily. There’s never a doubt in anyone’s mind that everything will work out in the end. Does that make it bad? I don’t think it does. It makes it safe and predictable, but it’s charming and that alone can make it worthwhile. While the premise of a small-town girl trying to “make it” in the big city is nothing particularly new, the way that Nola goes about it is different from most similar films. It’s like a dream. It’s enchanting.

This is especially true in how the film’s tone and style essentially works as a contradiction of its subject. The opening scene has Nola’s stepfather hit and attempt to rape her. In New York, the first person she encounters is a creep on the streets. The “villain” of the production is a sleazy businessman. Much of the film deals with an escort service run by Margaret (Mary McDonnell), who also happens to own the diner at which Nola works (you can guess where that’s going but it doesn’t play out like you think).

That material is all pretty dark, but the film is so colorful and joyful that it gives a much happier appearance. Nola is a bright-eyed character whose innocence and upbeat demeanor — mixed with strong survival instincts — makes her a sympathetic character. Some of the dialogue is meant to make you laugh, even though it’s far more cynical than you’d expect given the overall feeling of Nola. This is one of those weird, won’t-see-nothin’-like-it, films.

When the story is focused on Nola and her attempt to (1) find success in New York City and (2) locate her father, the film works to a great degree. It’s when the film deviates from this and involves secondary characters and their issues that it starts to get a little tiring. A big plot point involves a subpoena against Margaret’s escort service, so the film drops all of Nola’s goals in order to spend time on fixing that. Nola never gets boring but its lack of focus hurts it; it should have spent almost all of its time on Nola.

Audience members who hate coincidences will detest Nola. Everything is as convenient as it can be in this movie. A subpoena has been issued? Lucky that Ben is a law student. Margaret knows a reporter who just happens to have been told to do a story on her escort service. And the revelation about who Nola’s father is — yes, you find out; no, it’s not a surprise — winds up being silly beyond words. But that’s how fairy tales work, and I don’t think it’s entirely fair to disregard Nola because it’s convenient and forced.

However, if that robs you of any emotional payoff, I suppose that’s understandable (but too bad for you). I found it sweet. No, it’s not a strong drama but it’s a cute, harmless one, and while it doesn’t deliver a large payoff, it’s not completely devoid of one, either. You’ll be smiling after Nola ends if you have even a bit of sentimental blood running through you body. It’s a feel-good movie you watch after a hard day and make yourself feel better.

At Nola‘s core is Emmy Rossum, who is the perfect type of actor for this role, which requires both the ability to be exuberant, smart, and street-tough, all at various points. Rossum also gets to sing a couple of times, and she shows off her good voice. Mary McDonnell is a veteran actor of considerable talent, but she’s wasted here. All of the supporting actors are wasted, even with all the focus on their problems in the second act. The camera and our focus is always on Rossum, even when the film isn’t trying to be “about” her.

Nola is a sweet movie unlike almost anything else you’ll be able to see nowadays. Its subject matter is somewhat dark, but its style and tone make it come across like a fairy tale. Small-town girl goes to New York in order to fulfill her dreams. It has a strong leading performance, a couple of wasted supporting roles, a convenient and forced story, and a dreamlike perspective of how the world operates. For my money, it was fun and enchanting. I think Nola is worth seeing.

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