"Sweet Land"


Better late than never. And definitely worth the wait.

As its title suggests, "Sweet Land" is indeed a treat. Not sappy or sickeningly sweet, mind you, but the real deal: simple human emotions, tenderly and poignantly expressed.

Part of the CineVegas film festival's ongoing screening series, "Sweet Land" originally was scheduled last month, but had to be postponed when the series' first venue unexpectedly closed, forcing CineVegas officials to find a new home.

So, for all those who called and e-mailed to express their frustration at "Sweet Land's" last-minute no-show, now's your chance to experience a genuine cinematic prairie home companion.

Based on Will Weavers' short story "A Gravestone Made of Wheat," the movie begins in the present day, as Inge Torvik (Lois Smith) lies on her deathbed, recalling pivotal images from her life as a Minnesota farmer's wife.

She's not the only one overcome by memory, however. Her grandson Lars (Stephen Pelinski) remembers the day his grandfather died, a few decades before. And he thinks about what will happen to the family farm -- especially with a housing developer offering more than a million dollars for the land.

Most importantly, Lars thinks back to the days when his grandparents were young -- and Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) first came to rural Minnesota, as a mail-order bride, to marry his grandfather Olaf (Tim Guinee).

Her German ancestry incites immediate suspicion in those post-World War I days -- as does her fiery, independent spirit, which not only rankles the stoic, stalwart Olaf but the local pastor (John Heard), a sanctimonious prig who considers the strong coffee Elizabeth makes a clue to her European decadence.

Such telling details suffuse "Sweet Land," from the portable gramophone (complete with giant horn) Inge totes from the old country to the glass lantern slide show Olaf stages in his barn. They're talismans, magical keys to a treasured past rendered not with cheap nostalgia but with honest, bracing sentiment.

Director Ali Selim, an award-winning commercial veteran making a striking feature debut, renders these objects with loving detail -- as he does the vast, slightly implacable landscape and, most importantly, the vivid characters who populate it.

One clue to "Sweet Land's" quality is its supporting cast. In addition to the likes of Heard and Smith (who made her movie debut more than 50 years ago in "East of Eden," sharing a scene with James Dean), "Sweet Land" also features such notable performers as Tony-winner Alan Cumming (who also serves as one of "Sweet Land's" producers) as a hapless fellow farmer, former "ER" regular Alex Kingston (as his affable, incredibly fertile wife) and multiple Oscar-nominee Ned Beatty (as a cheerfully ruthless banker who's more than willing to foreclose on his own cousin's family).

Guinee, a familiar face on episodic TV (recent credits range from "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" to "Friday Night Lights"), infuses Olaf with an ardent, earnest resolve. But "Sweet Land" belongs first and foremost to Reaser (who had a multiple-episode "Grey's Anatomy" guest shot as Jane Doe), who captures Inge's unspoken but heartfelt dreams -- and the feisty determination that will, we know, make sure they come true.

 

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