Citizen Ruth (1996)
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriters: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Starring: Laura Dern, Kelly Preston, Swoosie Kurtz, Burt Reynolds, Tippi Hedren
Alexander Payne has been one of the unsung directors of the past 25 years, delivering a string of critically and commercially well received films. The most notable moments in his filmography to date are 1999’s Election, 2004’s Sideways, 2011’s The Descendants and 2013’s Nebraska, the collection covering a range of subject areas and marking Payne as a director with a truly singular voice and distinctive (and notably humourous) style, earning the filmmaker two Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay in the process. His 1996 debut Citizen Ruth is an under-watched film within his canon of work (while receiving moderately positive reviews upon release, it didn’t trouble the Box Office), one that acts as an early indicator to the personality that each of the screenwriter-director’s more reputable constructions would come to offer, boasting many of the traits of his later Oscar-winning fare.
In this 1996 release we follow Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), a drug addicted woman who has had to give up the care of her children. Following a rejection from her boyfriend and struggling with a lack of support from her family, she finds out she is pregnant. The bulk of the film focuses on Ruth’s desire to have an abortion, and she is taken in by figures from both the pro-choice and pro-life side of the abortion debate. One of the biggest strengths of the film is the way it acknowledges and ultimately critiques both sides of the debate, presenting both the reasoning and the flaws behind their arguments as Ruth’s case gains significant local and national media attention.
Laura Dern’s performance is one of the film’s clear highlights, the Oscar winner offering such contrasting work to her previous performances (including her breakout role in Jurassic Park just 3 years prior and work on several David Lynch films). Dern really sells Ruth’s struggles with drugs and her inner doubts about whether to go through with the abortion – she offers a fair share of comedic moments which is a surprise given the subject matter, the smattering of moments of physical comedy being a particularly notable aspect of the film and one of the hallmarks of Payne’s filmography to come. She imbues Ruth with a fragility and childlike nature that make her both a dislikeable individual but vitally someone viewers can sympathise with.
As in Payne’s other films, with the likes of Miles in Sideways and Jim McAllister in Election, Ruth is a character who is initially tough to side with. But, as the film progresses and the selfish nature of the story’s other inhabitants (on both sides of the abortion debate) becomes more clear cut, we feel Ruth’s moral quandary and struggle with addiction, ultimately rooting for her no matter which side of the film’s central debate she will ultimately fall on.
The film’s casting, as ever with an Alexander Payne film, is a consummate strength. For what was his feature debut, Payne managed to amass a high calibre cast, support for Dern coming from Alfred Hitchcock veteran Tippi Hedren, the late Kelly Preston and a lively extended cameo from the ever-watchable Burt Reynolds.
Citizen Ruth is, overall, a playful debut from Alexander Payne, exhibiting much of his trademark humour and social commentary. While it may suffer from a somewhat repetitive plot and perhaps an overlong run-time, it should be lauded for the way it handles the most tricky of subject matters without being outwardly upsetting to either side, and how it boasts some fantastic performances from across its cast with a particularly winning turn from Laura Dern.
Citizen Ruth offers intriguing glimpses at one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation and, while not as cohesive as future offerings, clearly shows glimmers of the greatness to come from Payne’s repertoire.