It’s always encouraging to see locally produced independent films find their way from festivals into movie theaters, especially when they’re as delightfully oddball as Raising Buchanan. Shot entirely in Arizona, the film is part wacky crime caper, part political satire, and part character study. And while the film can’t quite balance its various tones and ideas into a coherent whole, it provides enough narrative inventiveness and quirk to carry me through.
Written and directed by Bruce Dellis, Raising Buchanan stars Amanda Melby (who also produced) as Ruth Kiesling, a financially desperate woman hopelessly attempting to lift herself out of debt, through any means necessary, even if that means stealing the corpse of the 15th president of the United States and holding his body for ransom. Convinced that the repercussions would be minimal if she was caught (“I’d be charged with grave robbing, at best”), Ruth decides to go through with this ludicrous idea, with the help of her donut shop coworker (Cathy Shim). What could possibly go wrong?
The concept of Raising Buchanan is just loony enough to give a unique charm to what ends up resembling a crime-gone-wrong setup that the Coen brothers are masters of executing. The filmmakers even get a recurring Coen brothers cast member to play Ruth’s father, the reliably great M. Emmet Walsh. Dellis’s film almost has a matter-of-fact quality in the way it portrays things that are absolutely preposterous, which gives the movie its charm. And when Ruth tries to retrieve the ransom money from various organizations in exchange for the body, the results are particularly amusing.
Along with various conversations with her hospitalized father and oblivious probation officer (Terence Bernie Hines), Ruth also has some illuminating chats with a living, breathing embodiment of former President James Buchanan, played with real panache by Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). These back-and-forths are the most entertaining in the film, as dramatically interesting as they are playful.
As a character, Ruth is a bit of a moral quandary. She understands the moral ineptitude of Buchanan’s presidency, and yet she is committing a crime that quite obviously won’t go the way she wants it to. Amanda Melby plays her with deadpan quirkiness, sometimes reminding me of Tina Fey in her delivery of certain lines.
While Raising Buchanan has all the ingredients of a certified indie charmer, the film struggles to thread its various subplots and tonal shifts together in a wholly satisfying way. Some of this has to do with the pacing, which doesn’t have the propulsive energy that makes crime comedies of its ilk such a joy to watch. But more so, when the film lacks a certain connective tissue between its tonally dissonant scenes, the momentum is lost and the tonal shifts feel more jarring.
With this, our examination of Ruth as a character feels more disconnected from the political satire than I imagine the filmmakers intended, and the crime aspects become less of a focus in the end. And while all these aspects may work well on their own within specific scenes, the whole ends up feeling slightly less than the sum of its parts.
All that being said, Raising Buchanan is the type of low-budget indie filmmaking I like to see: an oddball movie that owns its absurd premise and has some fun with it. I found myself consistently amused, even as the film fumbles in juggling its disparate ideas. Take a chance on this locally-produced oddity when it plays at Harkins Theatres Shea 14 in Scottsdale this week, and see how its weirdness works on you.
Raising Buchanan is playing at Harkins Theatres Shea 14 this week, and look for it at a film festival near you.