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Austin Film Festival Movie Review: ‘When We Last Spoke’ – Heartbreak, Laughs, and Cloris Leachman

I was a little skeptical when I read the log line for When We Last Spoke, which screened at the Austin Film Festival last month. The producer promoted the film as “Humor, heartbreak, and triumph are served with whipped cream and lots of local nuts in this heartwarming tale of family, friendship, and forgiveness.” I thought, “The Andy Griffith Show?” But they did have Cloris Leachman in the cast, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

I’m glad I did. This was the most emotionally evocative film I saw during the entire festival – in fact, for years.

The Story

The story involves two Texas sisters, Juliet, played by Darby Camp (Big Little Lies) and Evangeline, played by Chandler Head (Fosse/Verdon). In 1967, while their father is deployed to Vietnam, their mother drops them off with their grandparents, Ruby, played by Melissa Gilbert (Little House on the Prairie) and Walt, played by Corbin Bernsen (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Major League), while she runs off to New York to pursue an entertainment career.

Darby Camp, left, and Chandler Head play the kids left with their grandparents

Ruby and Walt live in the fictional town of Fireside, located in Texas Hill Country near Austin. (I live in a real town in Texas Hill Country, so I can attest to the accuracy of the portrayal.) They are taken by surprise by the arrival of the girls, whom they love. The girls’ mom does not give any indication of whether she is ever coming back.

Ruby and Walt’s world undergoes another flip when Ruby’s brother shows up with Walt’s mom, played by Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein, Raising Hope). He announces that he and his wife can’t handle grandma anymore and it’s Ruby’s turn.

As a student of film, I particularly enjoy seeing a filmmaker violate “the rules” of filmmaking and produce something that is amazing like When We Last Spoke.

The Technique

“Avoid flashbacks” is high on the list of those rules. Shortly after being introduced to young Juliet and Evangeline, we see a title: “35 Years Later.” For the rest of the film we are flipped back and forth between the two time periods. We learn that grown-up Juliet, played by Lacy Camp (Outcast), and Evangeline, played by Alicia Fusting (Soon or Never), are estranged. The intertwining of the story of their youth and their possible adult reunion develops beautifully.

Cloris Leachman on the set of ‘When We Last Spoke’

The editing, by John Disher Jr., enhances the story. There is a sequence in which young Juliet and Evangeline are catching lightning bugs in the garden, intertwined with a depiction of what’s happening to their father in Vietnam. It’s a masterful and intricate tour-de-force of editing prowess. Disher, during the Q&A after the film, explained that he tried showing the contrasts between the two environments. He also gave credit to composer Rob Pottorf’s music for adding to the power of the scene.

Leachman, now 93, plays the alternately crazy and wise grandma. She is also an inspiration in real life. Not only did she do an amazing job in this film, she has five other projects in post-production. Grandmas seem to be in high demand.

The Artists

After the screening, filmmakers and cast answered questions from the audience.

Producer Fred Miller explained the he became aware of the book which inspired the film, written by Marci Henna, who was also there, after his wife read it and fell in love with it. “The characters were so clearly defined,” he said, “and there was enough conflict in it for them to come alive.”

He said that one of his co-producers introduced him to director Joanne Hock.

Hock said it was a challenging shoot. “We had little ones and a senior, 92 years old,” she explained. “We had a tight 17-day schedule, and with the young girls, only eight hours of shooting per day.” She recalled her concern with Leachman’s safety. “Cloris Leachman is dancing with the girls in several shots. I was afraid they’d knock her over and we’d have to wrap the whole movie. I told her just dance where you are.”

Her tactic worked. That was a great scene.

Miller pointed out how Henna played a larger role in the film than most novelists would have. “Marci was always there,” he said, “and made sure everyone always felt welcome. It was a wonderful shoot and she has been our north star.”

Henna has more stories about Fireside, Texas, in progress. You can find out more at firesidetexas.com.

When We Last Spoke is everything the filmmakers promised and more, full of friends, family, love, and forgiveness. You can watch the trailer below. To find out when you can see the film, check its website, Facebook page, Twitter, or Instagram. But I wouldn’t go too deep into those before seeing the film, as they contain what I would consider spoilers.

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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