Have you ever wondered what life was like in Boscobel during the 1940s? Me neither. But Chris Boebel's Red Betsy, which had its premiere at last spring's Wisconsin Film Festival and is now back in town for a statewide commercial run, presents such a convincing portrait of life in an isolated farming community that we feel transported to another place, another time. A movie about isolation, both from the world at large and from the people who are supposed to protect us from the world at large, Red Betsy features Alison Elliott as a war bride who becomes a war widow and finds herself stuck in the middle of nowhere with a father-in-law (Leo Burmester) who doesn't even like her. Many women would go out of their minds in such a situation. Elliott's Winifred goes out and finds a job as a schoolteacher, raises a daughter and waits for life to deal her a better hand. Ten years later, life is still shuffling.
Thus do the years flow by in Red Betsy: The same thing happens, day after day, and then, all of a sudden, the man on the radio is talking about Pearl Harbor. Writer-director Boebel, who adapted a short story by his Boscobel-born father, Charles, wants to show us the extraordinary in the ordinary, the heroism of those who quietly go about their business. He also wants to show us what brings people together and what drives them apart. Having grown up on a farm that's still without electricity or running water, Burmester's Emmet is such an isolationist that even his daughter-in-law, a city type, seems like a foreigner to him. "It's a new world out there," she tells him at one point, but Emmet likes the old world just fine, generating his own electricity when the government starts stringing wires all over the countryside. The problem is, generating your own electricity cuts you off from everybody else.
Movies about people who are cut off from everybody else can turn crabby, but Boebel doesn't let that happen, despite Burmester's stone-faced performance. Neither does he allow the characters to wallow in sentimentality. When Winifred gets her we-regret-to-inform-you telegram, we brace ourselves for an emotional breakdown; instead, the movie skips past the grieving process, preserving Winifred's privacy. Such elisions are not recommended in the Hollywood Handbook, and Red Betsy is a rather chilly piece of work ' as chilly as the Wisconsin winters it's set in. But there's integrity in such an approach; these are people, after all, who don't wear their hearts anywhere near their sleeves. The movie's beautifully shot, in lonely shades of brown and gray that suggest James Wyeth. Only the Red Betsy itself, a homemade airplane that was supposed to carry Winifred away from all this, provides a splash of vivid color.