Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Starring: Laura Dern, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, M. C. Gainey, Kenneth Mars
Political movements contain a message and goal they want to achieve in a broad sense, which they believe will do some good. As large as these movements can be, individuals within the battle can be swallowed up and forgotten in the process, which is detailed in a hilarious and biting manner in Citizen Ruth. The film tackles a very controversial debate and does so by focusing on the macro while also allowing us to appreciate the person in the middle of it all.
Known for not doing much other than committing crimes and getting high in her local Nebraskan town, Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) discovers she’s pregnant with yet another child. After being taken in by an Evangelical family hoping to convince her to keep the baby, Ruth soon finds herself as a symbol of the abortion debate as pro-choice and pro-life advocates fight over whether or not she should continue with the pregnancy.
A debate with no middle-ground, the debate on abortion has raged on ever since Roe v. Wade, which has resulted in marches, more court cases, and endless yelling. It comes down to the fundamental religious issue of seeing the fetus as a living thing that should never be killed versus the other side seeing the choice belonging solely to the woman. This issue will never be put to bed because of the radicalization of the debate, but Ruth finds herself right in the middle of it in this small town. Ruth would certainly not be considered in “Mother of the Year” conversations seeing as her kids were taken away by the state because of her inability to care for them. She battles with addiction, cannot maintain mature relationships and will do practically anything for the drugs she needs to keep her high. A saddening circumstance but she just goes about her day until she gets wrapped into this dilemma.
As the film shows, each side has their convictions about what Ruth should do with the baby, but none of them truly listen to her. The film in a way remains neutral on the issue and allows the two sides to make their own convincing arguments to Ruth. Our protagonist receives the lecture from the pro-life folk about the specialness of each child and how it would be murder to abort her fetus while the pro-choice side speaks on how she must think about herself and not make decisions out of guilt. As well-intentioned as each side began this process with Ruth, they both begin to fight with each other and whatever Ruth wants goes to the backburner. This ultimately becomes the danger of these large movements, as individuals get lost in the shuffle, and instead of considering what Ruth wants, they build her up to be the ultimate test for each of their sides.
Ruth’s progression throughout the film shows a hilarious lack of growth because she never receives the necessary nurture. It becomes about how she stands as a symbol rather than the individual choice she has as a person. She only genuinely cares for getting her next drug kick and anything that could potentially get her high. This part of her never gets treated because these movements focused on the symptom and not the addiction this woman battles every day. When money gets offered by both sides the pro-choice advocates begin to try and convince Ruth it would not be in her best interest, even if her choice would be to follow the money. And for the pro-lifers, they prove they could care less about the actual child or Ruth, they just want to pull one over on the pro-choice folks.
The cast of this feature is electric with Laura Dern anchoring it with her sensational performance as Ruth. It startled me to see her play this type of character, as I have always witnessed her more elegant and composed performances. As Ruth, she unleashes just how frantic and wild she can be on screen as she channels a character broken and needing help, with no one actually trying to assist her. Additionally, the cast expands with other actors having a blast in their roles including Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Burt Reynolds, and Tippi Hedren among others. They all contribute to creating a whirlwind of voices forming a cacophony of suggestions to a woman just seeking the next time she can get herself some recreational drugs.
As a filmmaker, Alexander Payne has eloquently captured the American midwest with the type of people inhabiting it to how the environment impacts everyone. Having grown up there, he knows the people and the ridiculousness they can display at times. With the mix of Evangelical pro-lifers and pro-choice advocates, this area becomes a battleground for the access and demonization of abortion. His biting commentary on this grand battle shines through brilliantly because of what it says at a macro level but also what it means for this to happen in the Midwest. The pleasantries that make this area of this country famous go away and the knives are out. He brilliantly utilizes the camera to fixate everything through the reactions of Ruth because the narrative may be pulled from her individuality for the sake of the causes, but the camera stays on her. Regardless of the whirlwind she finds herself in, this remains her story and the way the story progresses seeks to verify this sentiment.
With a consistent comedic tone, Citizen Ruth pokes fun at large political movements and debates by showing the average people that get dragged into it. Ruth stands out as the person just trying to live her life, but unintentionally becomes a symbol for something no one would have cared for if not for the media coverage her circumstance began to accrue. It all becomes a game in the end, but Ruth knows how to work her way around. The constant push and pull occurring make Ruth finally make her own decisions and allows for the more unpredictable parts of her story. This film proves to be so much fun because everyone behind it knows the seriousness of the topic occurring, but it still manages to tell a story with plenty of levity and a bit of bite.