2 stars (out of 4)
When we first meet Kate and her daughter Henri in "Evergreen," they are on the move again--leaving behind one broken life for the promise of something better. Penny- and root-less, they move in with Kate's mother and share a creaky bed.
Kate (Cara Seymour) gets a job at the First Lady Cosmetics factory ("Only two choices where to work in this town: the makeup factory or the toilet bowl factory," she says) and 14-year-old Henri (Addie Land) plays the new girl for the umpteenth time at her umpteenth school.
In her feature film debut, writer-director Enid Zentelis has a small budget, a big heart and earnest sympathy for the working poor. But though "Evergreen" has its truthful moments and a quiet dignity, it trades depth for empathy.
At school, Henri meets Chat (Noah Fleiss), a rich kid whose dad Frank makes his money off of "a little thing called Amazon.com" and whose mom Susan makes her day by torching baked Alaska. Chat takes a liking to Henri, Henri takes a liking to his family and the shame she feels for her own multiplies.
Henri lies a bit (she tells Chat's family that Kate is a beauty specialist) but mostly just works around her reality. She never tells Chat where she lives (and for the love of the plot, he stops asking) or that she's poor (and for the love of the plot, he doesn't notice).
"Evergreen" touches on many of the themes of last year's "Thirteen." Both explore angsty teenage girls and the mothers who love them (and want to be their best friends). But where "Thirteen" went dark and tortured, the one-dimensional "Evergreen" plays it safe, never pushing Henri toward any scary, emotional or revelatory edge.
The entire film is poorly lit, and the melancholy music, much of it from the wonderful Wilco spin-off band Autumn Defense, gives us the sense that things are getting heavy. But in the end, we observe more than feel.
Interestingly, Zentelis says she was inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich's book, "Nickel and Dimed." Interesting because for her book, Ehrenreich traded in her privileged lifestyle and, for a few months, played poor. She waitressed, worked at Wal-Mart and tried to make ends meet. She slummed it for a good cause, or more cynically, for a best-selling tome.
This seems part of "Evergreen's" problem. For all kind and admirable reasons, Zentelis wants to portray America's working poor, but she only gets deep enough to pity them.
Written and directed by Enid Zentelis; photographed by Matthew Clark; edited by Meg Reticker; production designed by Katie Rielly; original music by John Stirratt and Patrick Sansone; produced by Norma Jean Straw, Yael Melamede, Eva Kolodner and Zentelis. An Evergreen Films Inc. release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:27. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content involving teens, language).