When we first see Joline (Heather Graham), the charmed heroine of writer-director Lisa Krueger’s Committed, she‘s in her wedding dress, improvising a prenuptial ritual with incense, photos and bells. It’s a makeshift devotion to the commitment she‘s about to make, and solemn though it is, she performs it with the elation of a true believer. “Some people are born with a knack for faith,” she says in voice-over, and in the movie that follows, Krueger proves the declaration — not only as it pertains to Joline, but as it applies to the filmmaker’s own belief in the magic wrought by self-assured screwball sirens, overpoweringly romantic good guys and well-intentioned best friends.
For something to be proved, however, it must be tested, and a year and a half after the wedding, Jo comes home from her job running a New York club to find that her photographer husband, Carl (Luke Wilson), has bolted with no forwarding address. Her beloved brother, Jay (Casey Affleck) — who lives in a freeform arrangement with a lesbian couple — is only one in a chorus of friends who press Joline to forget about Carl and move on. But she will not be swayed from her marriage vow, and after a brief period of dissipation (heavy drinking, hugging strange dogs on the street), she rents a car and takes off in search.
As in Manny & Lo, Krueger‘s first feature, about two sisters on a crime-and-self-realization spree, the road affords an opportunity to get in touch with capabilities more strictly regulated in the real world. Set loose in the great wide open, Jo improvises as she goes along, never doubting her ability to sense a path to her objective. She soon finds that her skills border on the magical. After overcoming a pair of trashy highway robbers, she finally locates Carl by way of a (literal) cheesecake photo in a newspaper and lands in El Paso. In a border town where life’s parameters are more fluid than the boxy confines of New York, no one finds her quest out of the ordinary. Not her new comrade, Carmen (Patricia Velasquez), a Mexican waitress who is dark where Jo is fair and as blithe about life and love as Jo is resolute; not Neil (Goran Visnjic), Carl‘s artist neighbor, who patiently and very sexily woos Jo as she waits outside Carl’s home for the right moment to reveal herself. And especially not Grampy (Like Water for Chocolate director Alfonso Arau), a shaman who recognizes a fellow mystic in Jo and, for better or worse, instructs her in the ways of conjuring.
Then there‘s Krueger. Despite her movie’s trendy dressing — the cast is stylish and stunningly pretty — Committed is anchored by the abiding idea that faith and tenacity alone can be potent enough to realize life goals. The concept may likely be second nature to a woman filmmaker, but it can smack of a sunny, up-with-people optimism that cynical types like to mock — and there‘s no shortage of sparkly sweetness here. Yet Krueger has a singular knack for embellishment, for cleverly planted fillips that illuminate as much as delight: deer antlers that rise into the frame as Jo’s car drives by; the delicate crunch of a tortilla chip that Carmen plucks from a patron‘s table; a pebble, winged in solidarity by a mariachi after Jo heaves a boulder through Carl’s car window.
If the film‘s weight is sometimes feathery, Graham offers no ballast. She plays the role well, but while it’s nearly impossible to take one‘s eyes off her fabulous face, her impressive blue orbs can be oddly opaque, and it’s tough not to wish for that extra something that would elevate Jo from super-adorable to formidable. The same can be said for Velasquez, a former model just starting out on her acting career, whose great charm shows promise nonetheless. The film‘s most complete performance belongs, surprisingly, to Affleck, who molds Jay into a carelessly attractive, affectionate Mr. Mellow. The best thing about Committed, though, is Krueger, a filmmaker who’s not only willing to lead us into the well-traveled terrain of romantic comedy, but able to show us something new there. All she asks is that we have a little faith.