The Good Life


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Good Life is an arty indie film about people in small-town Nebraska who are alienated from mainstream American life. The words in the ironic title refer to the words on the "Welcome to Nebraska" signs at the state's borders.

The focal point is a young man named Jason who graduated from high school in small-town Nebraska and never managed to move away. He comes from a poor family and his father has recently passed away, so he can't afford to pay the electricity bills and lives in a freezing house. He makes the best living he can by working at a gas station. His only real amusement comes from his nightly visits to the local nostalgia cinema, but even that pleasure has become more of a responsibility because the owner of the theater, an old gent who has become his good friend, is gradually losing his mental functions and needs the younger man to help him keep everything on schedule.

The bane of Jason's existence is a former high school football player who lost his mind and turned into a vicious bully who never takes off his old jersey. Jason's redemption comes through an ethereally beautiful young woman who wandered into the theater one night and just forced her way into his life. She initiates a sexual relationship with the young man, and seems totally unconcerned by the total hair loss that has affected him for years.

Jason is desperate to leave his small-town existence, but cannot. His mother is alone and jobless, so Jason's meager income is their sole support. His old friend in the movie theater is falling into senile dementia, so Jason's care is his only connection to normality.

This film was screened at Sundance in 2007, and if ever there was a film "made for Sundance," this is it, and not just because of the themes. There are snippets from old films. There are long, quiet scenes punctuated by melancholy piano chords. There are rejections of mainstream American life. There are lingering shots of desolate wintry streets in once-respectable neighborhoods gone to seed. There are decaying artifacts of obsolete technology like rusted old gas pumps, manual cash registers, and old-fashioned projectors. There is the run-down Capitol theater in a neighborhood full of warehouses, boarded-up shops and razed apartments. Every shot is carefully calculated to present a world left behind by the glitz and prosperity of modern American life. If you are as cynical as I, bookmark this review, and if a young filmmaker asks for your advice on how to get a film screened at Sundance, give him this paragraph as a checklist.

This film has some flaws, the worst of which is "piling on." It seems that every major character is theatrically tragic in some way, and most of them have mental illnesses which would typically require institutionalization. The beautiful, angelic girlfriend turns out to be deeply disturbed, and her entire background story turns out not to be her own, but Judy Garland's. The ex-jock is hurting people physically and obviously represents a danger to the community, but no policemen seem to care or notice. The theater owner has lost his grip on reality. And Jason's recently deceased father turns out to have been the craziest one of the lot. It may be possible to find so much insanity linked through one central person in small-town America, but a realistic cast of characters would also include other people who are completely sane and who are resigned to or even happy with their lives. There would be waitresses and police officers and store clerks with upbeat personalities and cheerful outlooks. There would be loving young mothers who are a bit bored, but thrilled to be raising their new babies. There would be good kids having a great time from the final school bell until bedtime. Those sorts of characters are excluded from this story, which chooses to focus only on the damaged goods. That sort of exclusion turns what might have been a poignantly realistic story about America  into a archetypal fairy tale about Neverland, and destroys any credibility or insight it might have been able to establish as an examination of the American underbelly. And isn't it enough that the lead character is living in dire poverty, trapped in a town where he gets beaten up at random times for no reason? Does he also have to be hairless and surrounded by insanity?

That doesn't mean it is not a good film. The cinematography and score are consistent and evocative. The performances are delivered by the cream of the indie scene, like Donal Logue, Mark Webber, Zoe Deschanel and Harry Dean Stanton. The script is deeply heartfelt and intricate. The main characters are allowed to develop on screen. The film is a genuine piece of art. That's not to say it is great art, but it is art nonetheless, not formulaic commercial filmmaking, and I applaud many things about it, especially the depth of characterization, the attention to detail, and the ability of the author to tie so many elements together as artfully as a composer might wind separate instrumental parts into a symphony. I also admire the filmmaker's ability to allow us to draw our own conclusions about some scenes without offering an editorial perspective or an excessively verbose explanation. I'm also impressed by the fact that he allows some characters to move toward more hopeful and positive situations.

This film, while a superb effort from a first-timer, is just too downbeat and poetic to attract much of an audience, but you should probably enter filmmaker Steve Berra on your list of people to watch, because the potential on display here, while totally unrefined and still searching for a unique voice, is enormous.


* widescreen anamorphic, A/R 2.40:1








The only major online review can be found at The Hollywood Reporter






6.5 IMDB summary (of 10)






No theatrical release.







  • Zoe Deschanel did a topless scene, but kept her hands over her nipples.



Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is too derivative to be good, but demonstrates great potential from a first-time auteur.