IN MANN Booker prize-winning author James Kelman’s first foray into screen writing, his literacy and love of traditional American music from Creole to Cajun and much in between comes to the fore.
Dirt Road To Lafayette, directed by Kenny Glennan, examines its healing capacity through the lens of 15-year-old accordion player, Murdo (Neil Sutcliffe), who is trying to process family bereavement and teen angst on a road trip across the US with his buttoned-up father, Tom (David O’Hara).
After the loss of his mother and sister to illness, the boy and his father, journey from the Scottish Highlands to North Alabama via Memphis to hook up with a great uncle and explore the possibility of a new life. Nursing raw sensibilities after their recent loss, Murdo struggles to identify with an emotionally inarticulate parent, who can’t open up, and is left to process his grief alone.
The veteran and newcomer actors are excellent at the art of understatement – and O’Hara’s take on dour is genuinely formidable, using few words to articulate simmering anger and jealousy.
During a motel stop in Allentown, Mississippi, and trip to the store, Murdo stumbles across Sarah, whose grandmother is Zydeco (blues) music legend, Queen Monzee-ay, (Margo Moorer) and joins an impromptu jam on their porch, fusing notes from his homeland on a borrowed accordion with strains of the Deep South.
He hasn’t played since the death of his mother and is excited by this new style. Queen Monzee-ay has a maternal draw and very quickly he has loosened and connected more deeply with the warmth of her family than with his flesh and blood guardian.
Tom gets angry and concerned when the boy doesn’t return with the groceries and stumbles upon the music-makers. He drags him away and soon they are on a bus heading for the Presbyterian Uncle John (David Hayman), and Aunt Maureen, whose white repression and religious devotion contrast with the alluring freedom of his new musical friends. Murdo’s hopes of joining Queen Monzee-ay and her entourage for an upcoming gig in Lafayette are dashed as family duty kicks-in.
However, teen longing births an act of uncharacteristic defiance. Whilst his father is out, Murdo, steals money to buy his own accordion and takes to the road. Here, as the lad makes a nervous, unaccompanied bid for freedom across a foreign landscape, you sense Kelman has already been there. Indeed, as a teen himself, he went to stay with migrant family members in Los Angeles, and unable to get a work visa took the opportunity to travel.
The film has some beauty. Its portrayal of the gentle, gauche, red-head on the brink of manhood is tender and engaging. And, David O’Hara is assured as the silent authority clipping his son’s wings. At times the tempo of the film straitjackets us to Tom’s inhibition and the heaviness gets a little leaden. The dour Scottish acceptance of fate jars with the life-giving, soul-feeding, uplifting melodies eager to let rip.
But it is this grey ode to loss and the impact of Tom’s urge to control, that becomes almost as compelling as the music that rescues Murdo. When the youth, stifled, uncomfortable and restless, is finally given a chance to break free and take to the road with a feisty Mexican band, he is excited. But we feel keenly the unspoken responsibility to his helpless father who is always on his mind tarnishing his joy.
A solo performance – clearly Sutcliffe was cast in part for his musical prowess – seems to finally unlock his grief and we feel tenderness for his little spirit that his father still will not allow. This was never going to be an anarchic road movie about a young man seizing life in absolute defiance. The flame-haired boy’s passion is dampened one too many times and we sense the heaviness in his heart might well endure a lifetime.
• Dirt Road to Lafayette is on release now.