In the press materials for ``Evergreen,'' the young writer-director Enid Zentelis says she was inspired by ``Nickel and Dimed,'' Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 account of life in minimum-wage America. Thankfully, the movie's not that didactic. Instead, it's an earnest, simplistic, affecting slice of low-watt indie filmmaking that goes where few American movies bother: below the poverty line.
Newcomer Addie Land plays Henri, short for Henriette, with the stony glower and secret hopefulness of 14-year-old girls everywhere. Her mother, Kate (Cara Seymour), has hit a bad patch and relocated back to grandmother's house, a tumbledown shack on the outskirts of a small Washington State factory town. (Dad is not seen and never referenced.) While mother and daughter have always been close, Henri is at the tipping point of adolescence, and a growing romance with rich kid Chat (Noah Fleiss) introduces her to a world of possessions and ease that drives her crazy with envy.
On one side is mom, cranky grandma (Lynn Cohen), and mom's new beau, a hulking but goodhearted Native American casino pit boss named Jim (Gary Farmer of ``Powwow Highway''). On the other are the glib Chat and his parents, Frank (Bruce Davison) and Susan (Mary Kay Place) - to Henri the embodiment of a luxury suddenly within her reach. Life at home can't compete, and Henri's growing scorn for Kate and her efforts to maintain dignity feel bitter and real. The scene in which Kate, who's been selling cosmetics door to door, gives a makeover to Henri in Susan's kitchen - both mother and daughter keeping mum about their relationship - is a heartbreaker that presses hot buttons of class with quiet ferocity.
It's also the best scene in the movie. Too often, ``Evergreen'' dawdles along with a generic indie-film somnolence - you don't have to hear the plangent guitar strumming on the soundtrack to know this is a Sundance workshop project - and the respect the director shows her characters often shades into dullness. Underpopulated and schematic, the film eventually lets Henri understand that money hasn't bought Chat or his parents happiness, and while that's a noble and correct sentiment, only the performances keep the film out of ``After School Special'' territory.
``Evergreen,'' which will play only at the AMC Framingham, may be most notable for how it's coming to theaters: downloaded via satellite into the server of a digital projector. Just as unusual is the fact that the theater chain is distributing the movie itself. Apparently (see accompanying story), AMC chairman Dick Walsh saw the film and, reminded of his own hardscrabble beginnings, felt it important to get ``Evergreen'' to the public. I'd tell director Zentelis how lucky she is, but I suspect she already knows.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.