In 1962, California pumpkin farm girl Ellie Potter (Liana Liberato) is devastated when her mom is killed in a hit-and-run. While her dad (Luke Wilson) drowns his sorrows at the local bar, teenage Ellie struggles to raise four siblings and tend the farm by herself. Sick of being taken for granted and driven to honour her late mother, Ellie embarks on an impulsive adventure. Together with fun-loving best friend Max (Isabelle Fuhrman), Ellie sneaks away in her father's bright blue convertible on a cross-country road trip to meet her mom's idol, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Along an eventful journey the girls cross paths with some interesting people and share many misadventures.
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way Productions, Dear Eleanor spins a slight yet nonetheless heartwarming tale, filtered through the warmth of early Sixties nostalgia and energized by sparky, charismatic performances from rising stars Isabelle Fuhrman and in particular Liane Liberato. Both horror movie veterans, the young leads seem eager to break away from the creepy characters they have played in the past. Their chemistry and infectious good spirits keep the movie consistently watchable in spite of a ramshackle plot. It is worth watching for Ellie and Max's impromptu dance tribute to Marilyn Monroe alone. Actor Kevin Connolly, best known for his role as 'E' on the popular HBO series and spin-off movie Entourage, has a parallel career as a director both on television and indie film including Whatever We Do (2003) and Gardener of Eden (2007). Perhaps mindful of the dubious gender politics central to Entourage, Connolly latched onto a script that wears its feminist heart on its sleeve which is no bad thing.
Co-written by actress Aimee Garcia and Cecilia Contreras the film portrays its teen heroine as a believable hybrid of self-confidence and uncertainty and takes her on a road trip confronting contrasted incarnations of femininity. These range from the spiritual figurehead of pioneering social reformer Eleanor Roosevelt, the maternal warmth embodied by Ellie's late mother (Claire van der Boom) and a cameo from Ione Skye as a friendly stranger, the sensuality of Marilyn Monroe and Max's Aunt Daisy (Jessica Alba) who proves a hybrid of the latter two. Unfortunately the film fails to expound on Eleanor Roosevelt's significance as a feminist icon and champion of social reform in any meaningful way. In addition its concept of feminism does not amount to much more than rehashing a lot of Disneyesque clichés about friends sticking together and never giving up on their dreams. As a nostalgic comedy however Dear Eleanor packs no small amount of charm, landing likable characters in frequently funny situations. In particular a subplot wherein the girls end up sharing their car with Frank Morris (Josh Lucas), the same real-life escaped convict Clint Eastwood portrayed in Escape from Alcatraz (1979). Their awkward meal together in a diner observed by cops whilst bonding over quotes from the movies Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Night of the Hunter (1955) prove especially memorable. Meanwhile Jessica Alba enjoys her best role in years as a showgirl fallen on hard times and performs a splendidly sexy retro-Sixties styled dance routine.
Had its plot been tighter and feminist subtext more pointed Dear Eleanor could well have been a more substantial comedy-drama rather than merely a pleasant and engaging one. Even so Kevin Connolly – working with cinematographer Steven Fierberg – exhibits a keen eye for poetic visuals. What is more the film has a charmingly quirky sense of humour and Liana Liberato's nuanced turn wrings every ounce of emotion from the winning climax.