Opened: June 20, 1997 | Rated: R
Peter Fonda is the best thing about "Ulee's Gold." His understated performance, as a reclusive grandfather raising his jailed son's children, has an ensnaring depth of soul.
Ulee is the kind of man whose eyes tell a story of an exhausting uphill life full of struggle and doubt, and Fonda superbly demonstrates this simple man has begun to feel old and is losing ground.
Ulee hardly bothers to raise his voice against his rebellious teenage granddaughter anymore. Little sister Penny is still young enough to look up to Ulee as a tender, loving grandpa. Jimmy, their father, is in jail for robbery and Helen, their mother, has disappeared into a world of prostitution and drugs.
But when Helen resurfaces, Ulee feels obligated to take her in against his better judgment and his world it tipped on it's end.
Written and directed by Victor Nunez, "Ulee's Gold" examines emotions under duress with the same tranquillity-interrupted motif as "Ruby in Paradise," his 1993 debut. Like "Ruby," this film can be admired for its remarkable slice-of-life flavor, but only with a lot a patience.
Nunez has a longer attention span than his audience, spending the first third of the film simply establishing Ulee's habits as a bee keeper and reluctant father-figure before introducing heavy-duty conflict when a strung-out Helen is essentially ransomed by her husband's old crime partners.
Ulee characteristically rises to the challenge without the customary movie heroics and forces a thrashing and cursing Helen home to rehabilitate her.
While the adult characters interact on a sublime emotional level, Nunez apparently has little experience directing children as the granddaughters' personalities are spiritless and undeveloped.
As a writer, he also seems to be suffering from that occasional script-writer's disease, No Subtlety Syndrome, using bee euphemisms at every turn.
"They're happy when someone helps them back to their home," Ulee tells his impressionable granddaughter after a bear has upset a one of his hives. "I don't mind when they sting. They just panic and don't mean nothing by it."
Later, after Helen has recovered from an overdose, there's a shot of raw honey pouring into a purifier and emerging clear and golden.
With a director who wasn't so close to the material, and therefore able to see all needed nips and tucks, "Ulee's Gold" might have been something special. But as it is, the film serves mostly as a showcase for Fonda, allowing him to emerge from the shadow of his talented father, while reminding us of him at the same time.