If you've been wondering what Dakota Fanning has been up to, the once precocious, blonde child star is all grown up, done with her small role in the Twilight movies, and has veered into indie film territory. The Motel Life is the definition of what Hollywood would not make.
It's the story of the blue-collar Flannigan brothers, Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) and Frank Lee (Emile Hirsch). Jerry Lee is definitely more of a screw-up than Frank Lee, but after a promise to their cancer-ridden, dying single mother, their paths haven't diverged since they were teens. Through thick and mostly thin, the pair is glued together.
One icy morning in Reno, a boy is killed by a beat-up station wagon — the work of a drunk Jerry, who didn't see the kid pedaling on his bike. In a panic, he turns to his brother for support. But when words are not enough, he shoots himself... in the leg, a limb that's already halfway amputated as the result of a train accident. Frank copes with all this by leaning on his old friend Jim Beam. When the cops begin to suspect Jerry, an escape plan is hatched.
Kris Kristofferson (looking like Colonel Sanders) appears as Earl, Frank's old mentor who gave the 14-year-old a job at a used-car lot after his mother died. In need of a getaway car, Frank shows up at his old haunt. He gets a Dodge Dart and some sage advice.
"You're not a loser, kid," Earl tells Frank. "But if you keep acting like one ... what I'm saying is, don't make decisions thinkin' you're a lowlife, make decisions thinkin' you're a great man, at least a good man. And don't be a goddamn pussy."
Empowered by these words, Frank decides, Jerry in tow, to head to Elko in hopes of seeing his ex-girlfriend (enter Fanning) once more.
The movie alternates between something like an adaptation of a graphic novel (numerous animation sequences of explicit, made-up stories that Frank tells Jerry; "drawn-out" camera angles; Jerry's own exhibit-worthy sketches that cover his hotel walls) and an ultra-dramatic play. The Motel Life's source material is neither; it's based on Portland musician Willy Vlautin's novel of the same name.
There is more crying by men in this film than I've seen in any other. It's clear why Dorff and Hirsch signed up — they get to act hard, chew the scenery, prove that some men have feelings. In the end, The Motel Life is about the things that keep us together, making us stronger, showing no one is unworthy of love. The final product ain't — as the brothers would say — perfect, but it's certainly a think piece. ♦