Sunday, June 23, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Asleep in My Palm’ Gives Grace to Difference

Director: Henry Nelson
Writer: Henry Nelson
Stars: Tim Blake Nelson, Chloë Kerwin, Grant Harvey

Synopsis: Asleep in My Palm explores the nature of parenthood and class as a father and daughter live off the grid in rural Ohio where they must confront the challenges of her sexual awakening as he escapes a violent and conflicted past.

Henry Nelson’s Asleep in My Palm is almost as heartbreaking as Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace. The comparison is naturally going to be made between the two films as both feature a father and daughter duo living off grid because of the father’s intense military service-related PTSD. Granik’s film is a masterpiece and Nelson’s work will exist in its long shadow. However, Asleep in My Palm distinguishes itself by shifting the focus to the self-imposed predicament created by Tom (Tim Blake Nelson) as one based in uncontained rage at the world. His only balm is Beth Ann (Chloë Kerwin), now sixteen years old and beginning to find herself curious about the world beyond the one created by him.

The film begins with Tom giving Beth Ann his interpretation of Disney’s Chicken Little. Not the original short made for American wartime propaganda, but the panned 2005 movie. His version is a tale he’s telling about himself. A “bespectacled homunculus” chicken who no one believes or likes, who maybe lives in Paterson, New Jersey. One who is bullied and ostracized by the community and later forms a gang to take them down. He doesn’t have to because everything does go to shit. This Chicken Little “Looks up and he’s happy because he’s been dead for years, and the last thing he’s going to see is those fuckers eating shit.” Maybe he saw the crack and what others can’t see.

Beth Ann questions his story with a sleepy kindness and tells him to be safe as he leaves their tiny storage unit which doubles as their home. Despite the sodden and slushy Ohio snow, the storage unit is still a “home.” Whatever Tom is doing, and most of it is criminal, his focus is keeping Beth Ann wrapped warm and tight.

But how tight can someone like Tom really hold on to a young woman who is beginning to wonder about the world beyond the two of them? Tom has given her a better education than most college kids would get. They are living near the famous Oberlin College; a place where a month’s tuition would keep Tom and Beth Ann alive for years. Yet, Beth Ann has never been to a party. She’s committed crimes – she can break and enter like a professional, but she’s almost a total innocent.

Tom is used to the exhausting hustle. Along with Jose (a strange incel type played by Jared Abrahamson) he steals whatever he can from the college dorms. Jose believes that women liking Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ is an act of cultural appropriation. He’s an idiot Tom tolerates but seemingly doesn’t care about. His manic energy and ridiculous statements weary an already weary man. 

Tom is cynical and jaded about the modern world and has kept Beth Ann from it. No phones, no television, no computers. An itinerant life where they can just move on once a place no longer serves its purpose or gets “too hot” — if he was in a Michael Mann film he’d almost be considered urbane. But Asleep in My Palm is not Heat.

Tom is an enigma, perhaps even to himself. The audience knows he was in Desert Storm, but who was he before that? Who did he become afterwards? How is a man living hand to mouth able to debate metaphysics or give a quick lesson on the Stoics? When he meets a bunch of bored college kid “Satanists” he’s able to break down the philosophy of “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” as espoused by the Thelemites and Aleister Crowley.

Crafting an imaginative world filled with joy and small wonders for Beth Ann has filled his aching loneliness. Beth Ann’s mother is simply, “gone.” But Beth Ann can’t stay forever the urchin and waif — the Paper Moon lifestyle of modern-day panhandling and swindling has an end point. That end point is sexual maturity and adult curiosity.

Chloë Kerwin plays Beth Ann with vulnerability and curiosity. She adores Tom, she wants to protect him as much as he wants to protect her, but she meets people who show her that there is a world she’s been forbidden to explore. One that can be as ugly as Tom warned her, but one which also contains beautiful and enchanting women such as Gus Birney’s rich girl Millah, who likes the idea of slumming it with Grant Harvey’s ‘Dark Mortius.’ A single kiss from Millah and some time spent being seen by someone else and Beth Ann is smitten. 

Just as Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) says to Will (Ben Foster) in Leave No Trace, “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me” Beth Ann has to tell her father “No one’s going to remember me. Just you. There are no pictures of me.” It’s not enough for her any longer to be invisible from the institutional monsters. She has the one thing Tom wishes she would never have, desire. Not a desire for the material, but for some form of autonomy — which ironically is what Tom was striving towards himself but can’t manage.

Henry Nelson captures life on the outskirts with humanity and sometimes almost absurd humor. He doesn’t pretend that it is a life anyone would truly desire unless they were broken by uncaring systems. When Millah tells Beth Ann that she is more adult at the age of sixteen than she will ever be, she means it. They have a shared envy of each other’s lives. But Millah eventually will just fall into a safety net of privilege. She will live a small life but a safe one. College is the time she gets before she ends up married and doing charity events.

Asleep in My Palm is a film which documents the small American tragedies. The world of poverty is still around the rust belt next to generational wealth. Asleep in My Palm is a lyrical film with extraordinary performances by Nelson and Kerwin. It is patiently and expertly shot which makes the interspersed violence all the more impactful. The only real criticism that can be leveled is an extraneous mystery and solution at the end of the film which brings up a question no one was asking. 

Asleep in My Palm is an outstanding debut by Henry Nelson, and he has the great fortune to be directing his father, who is one of America’s finest character actors. Love is complex and families even more so. Asleep in My Palm gives grace to two people just trying to find a place in the world — one who will never truly belong because he has never healed his trauma, and one who has a chance to fly higher and see if the sky really is falling in.

Grade: B+

Similar Articles