Archives / 1996 Sundance Film Festival

Citizen Ruth (Meet Ruth Stoops)

Director: Alexander Payne

Screenwriters: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor

Institute History

  • 1996 Sundance Film Festival

Description

Fanaticism seems to be the disease of choice for the nineties. As the right pulls against the left, nowhere is tension more acute than anywhere around the abortion issue. It is the principal topic that can make even the fastest-talking politicians cringe into retreat. But it is exactly this untouchable subject matter that makes Meet Ruth Stoops a refreshingly irreverent black comedy. Ruth is a “huffer.” She is addicted to fumes: paint, glue—anything that will make her high. She finds herself in jail and more importantly, pregnant. Her overnight cellmates, as it happens, are pro-lifers who have been locked up after a demonstration. Ruth soon becomes the unwitting symbol in a prolife versus pro-choice tug-of-war. It appears to everyone she needs to be saved, but from what and whom is the question?

Alexander Payne walks us down a comic tightrope that is fraying on one end and on fire at the other. He and coscreenwriter Jim Taylor are fearless in the dangerous waters they are charting, yet no one goes unscathed. They seem to have stripped down each character to its political essence, then carefully allowed an overlay of human elements to resurface and push the plot along through this social microcosm. The persona and stature of each actor are our first clue that this is comedy. Mary Kay Place as the Christian do-gooder, Burt Reynolds as a TV evangelist, Swoosie Kurtz as a righteous activist and many more in turn add a new level of camp to this romp. But the true star is Laura Dern as Ruth, everyone’s favorite victim. Her performance is flawless. Blundering headlong from one misadventure to another, she manages to stay surprisingly pure as the homeless druggy stretched thin by imposed moral dilemmas.

I can’t say Meet Ruth Stoops is fun for the whole family, but I can say there is lots of fun to be had with “family values.” No matter what your own beliefs, you will see humor on both sides. But should we let ourselves laugh about such a serious issue? I think we have to.

— John Cooper

Screening Details

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