Spotlight: Leaving Iowa

Jen Crist

Family road trips, for all their tension and tedium, always yield a fair amount of humor, whether from ruthless backseat inter-sibling squabbling or the inevitable paternal meltdown in some remote backwater. Leaving Iowa begins on the road, with Mom (Ellen Karsten), son Don (Terry Lynn Carlson), and his sister (Jennifer Maren) all snoozing away while Dad (Steve Shaffer) pilots their station wagon. The only problem? Dad's asleep as well, though the lights and horns of an oncoming semi serve to bring him back from dreamland. From here the action zigzags back and forth through time. Don, all grown up and a journalist in Boston, returns to his Iowa roots for his nephew's baptism. When he discovers the urn containing his now-deceased father's ashes in the basement of his childhood home, though, the rush of memories becomes tinged with guilt. It seems Dad was a stoic sort, and he and Don lost touch over the years to the point that Don missed the flight that would have brought him to Dad's funeral. Don tries to set things right by scattering Dad's ashes on the farm where he grew up, only to discover that, essentially, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. Director Tim Clue (who co-wrote the script with Spike Manton) dials back on the sentimentality and gets light but truthful performances from his actors (Fred Wagner nearly steals things in multiple goofy roles, including an Amish quilt vendor and a diarrhea-suffering uncle). Carlson lends a convincing portrayal as a man dipping back into his roots with a panicky need to extract meaning from it all, and Shaffer plays the history-teacher father in flashbacks as well-meaning, a bit of a bore at times—just the kind of solid Pops whose children find it effortless to take for granted. By the end, Don reaches back into his memory to find a fitting resting spot for Dad's ashes, and it's a moment of real poignancy. Leaving Iowa ends up being one of those rare comedies that, by virtue of its heart and restraint, leaves its audience tickled and touched in equal measure.

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