It’s all I’ve ever known.
That one sentence, that one scene from the film Running on Empty is haunting me. I watched it Wednesday night, just me and a couple of Guinness. It affected me, the ending especially, no doubt because I have children of my own.
If you don’t want me to spoil it for you, stop reading right now.
Ok. The end. No, there’s a whole story that leads up to that moment, and you need to hear that first. There’s a family. That’s the main thing; that’s really what this film is about – family. Bonds. How love is selfish, and then, when it’s really large, unselfish. And love has consequences, and if you can face them you can make the world a better place.
This family, mom, dad, two boys, age 12 and 17 or thereabouts, is close. They’re a tight unit; they have to be, because they are on the run from the law, from society. The kids accept it; it’s all they’ve ever known. Their mom and dad were active in anti-government activities in the ’60s and early ’70s. They planted a bomb in a Napalm factory. They wanted to make a statement: chemical warfare by its indiscriminate nature is wrong. Not in my name. Unfortunately, there was an innocent bystander who got injured – blinded and paralyzed. He wasn’t supposed to be there; the revolutionaries don’t believe in committing the very crimes they are trying to stop.
The film opens with the family hitting the road on a moment’s notice, one step ahead of law enforcement agents. About the only thing they take with them is a practice piano keyboard.
River Phoenix is the teenager, Danny. I remember that his acting talent was well-regarded, but I can’t remember any standout performances. But this is one. I kept thinking of James Dean. The filmmakers were aware of the similarities too, as he’s often seen in a windbreaker (blue instead of red), and a poster of Dean is visible in one scene.
This movie is his story. His life. And, naturally, it’s just beginning. He’s an extremely talented musician. Piano. Classical piano. His dad, Judd Hirsch, is a rocker of course, that’s the music of the people and the soundtrack of revolution. His mom is also a talented musician. Or could have been, before her life was derailed. By her own actions, she’s aware of that. The parents are adults, not interested in the blame game. They want to get by and raise the best kids they can. In that, they are succeeding admirably. And that is brought out in the film beautifully.
But they’re running on empty. But running, getting by, underground. Living through subterfuge. It’s all the kids have ever known. That line, the one haunting me, is delivered by Phoenix to his girlfriend in a moment of desperation. Despite the danger, he has to let down the facade, let this girl in to the real person, tell the true story of his young life: It’s all I’ve ever known. Being on the run. Having to put forward a false front. Keeping everyone and everything at a distance.
He’s a great kid. I hope I should do so well with my kids. This film is not so much a political story – though that’s there, it’s just part of life, something you live with. The difference is, through the actions undertaken for their convictions, all these issues are given heightened dramatic tension. Paradoxically, it’s what you’d call a quiet film. But that’s where its power lies. We recognize our own quiet lives, whether we’re active revolutionaries or not. Just giving, to raise a child, to act on your convictions, to nurture a talent, is also a positive and political act.
And making sacrifices, so that, for someone, dreams deferred will not be all they’ve ever known. And that brings me, finally, to the ending. At his latest school, Danny has caught the eye of the local music teacher. He sees a promising talent, and encourages it. He even manages to get him to audition at Juilliard, even though neither he nor his parents have dared look beyond the next day or week of outsmarting the authorities. It’s what they must do, and its all they’ve ever known.
The mother, played brilliantly by Christine Lahti, gets wind of her son’s clandestine exploration of just where his talent might take him, so she starts thinking about how she might make it possible. She’s coming to terms with what they’ve done and how their kids are paying the price. Her husband doesn’t want to face it. “We’re a family unit. It’s all we have,” he says. “Look at our kids. They’re wonderful. We haven’t done too badly.” He won’t let himself look beyond the present moment.
Lahti arranges a risky meeting with her father at a restaurant. They haven’t seen each other in 14 years, since the fateful explosion. He’s unforgiving at first. She pleads her case. Just take Danny, let him go to Juilliard. When Michael is of age, I’m going to turn myself in. I’ll get 15 years. 15 years without involvement in my children’s lives. Yes, the same amount of time her father has suffered. Maybe it’s easy irony, but it works. Her father finally agrees. She says she loves him and leaves, near breakdown. Her father’s cold facade breaks, enough for him to let go with a small but forceful bark of emotion.
Full circle. The end: They’re on the run again. Get in the truck and go! But Danny has to say goodbye to his girlfriend. The family waits at a rendezvous point. Danny comes barreling up on his bicycle, gets off and throws it in the back of the truck. His dad tells him to take the bike out of the back. Danny takes it out, parks it with the kickstand, starts to get in the truck. “No,” says his father. “Get on it. Go. Your mother has made arrangements with her father. Go see him. Good luck kid.”
I cried a few salty tears. I’m gonna have to do that someday.