Outside Providence (1999)

Directed by Michael Corrente

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There are a ton of needle drops in Outside Providence, and just about every song on the soundtrack to the 1974-set film is a classic.  The film is more or less a series of montages of young love set to the likes of The Who, Wings, The Eagles, Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers and King Harvest.  When one character suddenly, inexplicably died, the funeral scene was accompanied by the unmistakable first few notes of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”

It’s not uncommon for period movies like this (or American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, etc.) to structure the soundtrack around the hits of the decade, but it also feels like revisionist history.  Were the young characters of this film really only listening to the songs we’d remember twenty-five years later?

Well that’s a coming of age movie for you.  These are stories about nostalgia and growing up, and so you’re likely to remember the things that stick with you while discarding the memories that added up to nothing.

Outside Providence moves fast, scrubbing away any possible trace of nuance and instead plopping its cardboard cutout characters into the plot of any other number of similar movies.  The story is structured around the school year at northeastern boarding school, as seen through the eyes of the newest student, an outsider from a working class background named Tim Dunphy (Shawn Hatosy).

He is forced to attend Cornwall Academy somewhere in a wealthy area of Connecticut.  There he meets a nice group of friends, feuds with one of the instructors and falls in love with the only girl we ever see onscreen, Jane Weston (Amy Smart, who is buried deep in the IMDB’s cast list).  The playfulness of all this self-discovery contrasts with a grim home life where Tim does battle with a probably depressed, certainly repressed, thick Boston accented father (Alec Baldwin) who calls his son “Dildo.”  The main source of conflict between them has to do with the untimely death of Tim’s mother, the details of which are slowly given out over time.

The scenes between father and son are well-acted, but they often feel shoved into the narrative, acting as the only sense of growing conflict in the film while everything else seems to be going quite well.  In fact, the other source of conflict that inevitably develops between Tim and Jane has to do with her being caught in his dorm room and thus losing her scholarship to Brown University.  It’s a contrived plot device which Tim must make up for (and of course he does) in order to win back her trust and respect.

Beyond that there is no real plot or character development in Outside Providence.  It’s hard to even remember how Tim and Jane meet because after a brief car ride together there is some rough narration and a montage to establish that they get along quite well.  The effect is like meeting two people on your first weekend of college, then not seeing them for another two months and finding out they’re dating.  You shrug and say, sure, that’s nice.

We never really meet Jane, which is a shame, because Amy Smart is a nice actress who has had more to work with in other not so great to passable movies.  Here she conveys enough of that ‘girl next door’ quality which the movie is certainly after, but beyond that we don’t know her at all as a person.  She’s just there to symbolize the ways in which Tim is growing as a person, from that pot-smoking slacker with long hair and no girlfriend to that pot-smoking slacker with short hair and one girlfriend.

The movie ends up being a strange blend of a coming of age story and a slacker, stoner comedy.  There are a couple amusing lines, typically ones that emphasize Tim’s adorable lack of intelligence, but when Jane then indulges that same dim wittedness it starts to wear thin.

The idea is that Tim becomes a fish out of water and as a result learns something about himself and the broader world.  But all he does is fall in love, and it would seem like Jane’s sudden inclusion in his life demonstrates how he’s straightening out a little, except that his father isn’t any more pleased.  To him Tim is still a problem child, and things only improve once they open up about Tim’s mother and her suicide.

Outside Providence is just a bunch of things happening at the same time, with little connective tissue between them.  It’s scattered, occasionally endearing but mostly underwhelming.  From what I’ve read it seems that Miramax re-cut the film, making it less of a personal story to writer Peter Farrelly and more into a simplistic stoner comedy that’s not all that funny.

*Also there’s a pretty brutal scene involving groupthink and homophobia that never really goes commented upon.

Up Next: Red Dawn (1984), Time After Time (1979), The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

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