Small-town life proves stifling for characters and audience alike in Angels In Stardust, a good-hearted but flatfooted drama set on the Texas-Oklahoma border. (The title refers to a broken-down drive-in movie theater that’s been converted into a makeshift housing development; the “S” has worn off the sign so it reads “Tardust,” which could lead to the film being unwittingly embraced by Doctor Who fans.) In unraveling the umpteenth account of a girl trying to dream her way out of a dead-end existence, writer-director William Robert Carey keeps trying to resist clichés, and ends up embracing them like long-lost friends. Even the moments when the script purposefully plays with archetypes and icons are undermined by the scenario’s sheer familiarity.
Carey’s cleverest invention is the Cowboy (Billy Burke), a laconic caricature of Marlboro Man cool whose shtick is literally too good to be true. He’s the fantasy projection of teen protagonist Vallie Sue (AJ Michalka), who conjures him up any time she needs a plainspoken pep talk. Which, as it turns out, is pretty often, what with her stress over the selfish behavior of her mother Tammy (Alicia Silverstone), a cougar-ish funeral-home employee perpetually on the prowl for a new beau. Vallie Sue’s skepticism about Tammy’s predatory dating habits are tied into her own anxiety about coming of age, which in these God-fearing parts is a simultaneous source of stigma and exhilaration. She’s also worried about her younger brother Pleasant (Adam Taylor), a strangely dazed little kid who dotes on the community’s hulking Indian caretaker, Tenkill (Michael J. Spears).
The conservative streak running through Angels In Stardust doesn’t overwhelm the story; the fact that ’Tardust inhabitants worship a statue of Jesus In Cowboy Boots (the title of a Carey novel, which he’s adapting here) efficiently epitomizes the collision of values underneath its dusty surface. Unfortunately, Carey’s skills as a conceptualist don’t extend to actually staging dramatic exchanges between his characters; with the exception of the believably complicated Tammy—whom the ever-underrated Silverstone gives some skillful shadings—the characters are types who fulfill their predetermined roles. For instance, it’s obvious that the taciturn Tenkill, a figure of suspicion among the townspeople, will reveal himself as a good dude who patiently teaches the heroine a lesson in tolerance.
In fact, one of the biggest problems with Angels In Stardust is that its ostensible mover-and-shaker spends most of her time being lectured. Vallie Sue is meant to be a watchful, observant character with a rich inner life, but Michalka’s performance is passive and underwhelming. Last seen paternally tousling Kristen Stewart’s hair in the Twilight movies, Burke evinces obvious enjoyment in playing a magical imaginary gunslinger, and the cheapo visual effects that keep placing The Cowboy on the ’Tardust’s faded drive-in screen have a certain lo-fi charm. But the exchanges between Vallie Sue and the Cowboy gradually grow enervating, and the various scattered plot points—including the lurking presences of some nasty trailer-trash shit-kickers—fail to coalesce. And each one of its emotional beats can be spotted well in advance, ambling over the horizon. Competently shot and edited, and imbued with a gentle sense of affection for its setting, Angels In Stardust doesn’t ultimately insult its audience’s intelligence. But it doesn’t really engage it, either.