If the 'Indies' Stay in Vogue, 'Ulee's Gold' May Strike It Rich

Independent filmmaking made big strides in popularity with the recent Academy Awards race, even though most of the attention-getting pictures were made by relatively new figures on the "indie" scene.

Some hardy filmmakers have been laboring in that vineyard for a long while, though, including Victor Nunez, who has explored his northern Florida homeland for almost 20 years in human-scaled productions like "A Flash of Green" and "Ruby in Paradise."

Nunez's newest picture, "Ulee's Gold," could be a good bet for next year's Oscars if indies stay in vogue. Again the setting is northern and central Florida; again the story is driven more by characters than plot twists; and again there's a performance - by Peter Fonda this time - so fascinating that everything else seems to cluster around it like bees in a honey-filled hive.

The bee comparison is appropriate, since the title of "Ulee's Gold" refers partly to honey, harvested by the main character from an apiary near his home.

It also refers to his family, which is as much a treasure as any family, but hard for Ulee to appreciate for two reasons. One is that his reclusive nature has led him away from most human contacts since his unhappy days in the Vietnam War. Another is that his particular family seems prone to trouble. His son is in prison, his daughter-in-law has drug problems, and his eldest grandchild has started following her mother's bad example.

The story begins when Ulee learns his daughter-in-law is in the clutches of two unsavory friends who are looking for stolen loot her husband stashed away before going to jail. Spurred by family loyalty, Ulee brings his drug-dazed relative home and sobers her up with help from a compassionate nurse. Then the bad guys from Orlando arrive on his doorstep with demands and threats, and Ulee must fend them off while shielding his household.

This plot sounds melodramatic, and the movie does have outbursts of emotional and physical violence. Nunez's movies are never motivated by sensationalism, though. He pushes the tale through its distasteful moments as briskly as possible, lingering on them just long enough to establish the challenges his characters have to face. This makes their victories over violence and immorality all the more stirring when they finally occur.

One lesson of "Ulee's Gold" is that a contemporary movie can focus on family values and moral issues without seeming preachy or sentimental. Another is that a skilled screenwriter can bring intellectual interests into a story - the name Ulee is short for Ulysses, one of several references to ancient literature - in a light-handed way.

One more lesson is that it's never too late for a comeback. Once a '60s icon in antiestablishment classics like "Easy Rider" and "The Trip," the half-forgotten Fonda has been relegated in recent years to second-rate cameos in third-rate pictures.

Yet his portrayal of Ulee - apparently modeled on real-life mannerisms of Henry Fonda, his movie-star father - is as convincing and absorbing as any work of his career.

Patricia Richardson, of TV's popular "Home Improvement" series, heads the supporting cast. Virgil Mirano did the superbly atmospheric camera work.

* 'Ulee's Gold' has an R rating. It contains a few harrowing scenes of emotional and physical violence, and some raunchy dialogue.

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