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A woman with a flip hairdo in a glowing white dress, on the poor side of the tracks when Southern towns were still segregated, is trying to get out of a situation and needs a few people to help her. Within the realm of a flashback, it’s sketchy what her agenda is. She tries to get her best friend, who is black, to babysit. Always wearing the saintly summer dress with a white headband, she criss-crosses the seedy parts of town with an urgent need to rescue herself from dire poverty. Scenes flash over celluloid of her kissing her son gently on the forehead, leaving him in a dilapidated house alone with a goodbye note, mouthing words to say “I love you.” She takes off in a low-rider station wagon with a demanding, rude man that she classifies as “her last chance.”
The story seems to be about a mother who has a child but can’t afford him and decides to abandon him. There is also a scene where she climbs the metal steps to a rickety motel. An older woman played by Norma McCorvey, the real life Jane Roe who won abortion rights in 1973 in the landmark case, tries to stop the mother from aborting her child. The scene is unclear and muddled. It appears that Lucy Mae, the mother, already has a child. Flash forward to a sexually appealing man with blonde, loosely curled hair who boards a bus in the middle of nowhere and gets off in the middle of somewhere. It’s Smithville, Texas—your regular high-living Texas town with big mouths and brawlers in the bar. His name is Sam Doonby and he immediately gets a job at a country swagger-style blues bar manned by actor Ernie Hudson. He becomes likeable to all the women, but the men resent him for his guitar picking and singing skills that upstage their own. There are a few regulars at the bar including Laura Reaper played by Jenn Gotzen, the debonair doctor’s daughter who slams her liquor down each night in a way to obliviate any responsibility.
As the film progresses, Sam Doonby seems to subtly redirect people to their higher calling. He doesn’t sleep with Laura right away, and he counsels people at the bar to make better choices. The bar owner gets held up by two men, and Sam throws a bottle at the head of the robber and saves Leroy, the owner, from death. His wife is eternally grateful. Later, he saves a child in a grocery cart from being hit by a runaway semi that hurdles through the main city shopping district. Sam Doonby seems to always be in the right place at the right time.
Doonby gets invited over to Laura Reaper’s house for dinner because it was her father’s grandchild that he saved. The father, played by Joe Estevez, Martin Sheen’s brother, shows the acting edge of family genetics in his portrayal of Dr. Reaper, a gynecologist who is well-respected but also likes to drink. At the dinner, it is discovered that Sam Doonby is from the same town as the Reapers, Parkerville, Louisiana. When he sees Dr. Reaper, Doonby has a bad reaction and leaves the dinner party instantly. Laura confronts him in the driveway, not understanding why her father is so repulsive to him. He tells her he cannot explain at that time. He runs off.
Every night, Doonby writes in his leather-bound diary. He shares his feelings all the way from childhood about how he viewed his mother as a saint, and continues to write about the events that affects him. He will not allow anyone to read it. He tells Laura, “I only stay in one town for a short while, and then I move on.” One night, Sam is out of town playing a concert in Austin, and Laura is cooking dinner for him in the chicken coop house he has arranged as his living space back behind the bar. A man attacks her and is about to rape her at knife point. Sam comes in from Austin at the nick of time and is forced to kill the intruder.
Now suspicion is beginning to form around Sam Doonby, this outsider who seems to be able to help everyone in the crowning moments of despair. The local sheriff hones in on him and begins to question his past. Sam does not have a birth certificate or any proof of his existence. He only has testimony about subduing the man who almost raped his girlfriend. The sheriff retorts, “This was a peaceful town until you came along.” Fewer people frequent Leroy’s tavern, and Sam feels the side effects of being a stranger without any reputable background.
One night, Jolene the bar maid is bored at Leroy’s and decides to make a play for Sam when Laura is not around. She crawls into his bed in the chicken coop apartment, strips down, and tosses her clothes in every direction. She leaves an eloquent string of pearls around her neck. Sam walks in and tells her up front he will not sleep with her. Jolene, played by Brandi Blevens, asks, “How can you be with that no-good doctor’s daughter who gets sauced every night?” She continues to rage and shuffles out of the bed, demanding payback. “I will make you, Laura, and her family pay.”
Jolene rushes over to Dr. Reaper’s gynecological clinic and tells him at closing time that she has a vaginal problem that must be seen immediately. Dr. Reaper tells her it’s after hours and he has no staff on hand to treat her. She asks him to just take a look, and he agrees. In the next scene, Dr. Reaper is in jail and Jolene is in the interrogation room insisting to the sheriff that Dr. Reaper raped her. Sam comes along with the red slip Jolene forgot at his place and explains to the sheriff that she tried to seduce him and was hostile when he didn’t return her affections. The doctor is freed and the sheriff believes Sam’s story. Jolene leaves in shame.
Laura comes over to Sam’s place and finds Jolene’s earring in Sam’s bed. She didn’t hear the testimony and goes on a rampage while drunk, expressing acutely her level of distrust to Sam. Sam says, “What do you want me to do? Save you from your alcohol?” Laura is out of control and it’s obvious no one can help her. She passes out in his bed; he tucks her in. In the next scene, she wakes up and Sam is gone. She reads his diary and discovers that Sam was aborted by her father, Cyrus Reaper. It appears that Sam was an apparition or a spirit that came to earth in spite of being aborted and does good works. Laura cries incessantly and walks into Leroy’s bar looking for Sam. Leroy is dead. Her father is drunk over the accusations of Jolene accusing him of rape. All the near-death life savers have been wiped away. Leroy is dead, the grandchild is dead, Cyrus is accused of rape, and Laura is lost without Sam. The moral of the story is that if Lucy Mae, the mother played by Erin Way, had not aborted her child, Sam would have lived and had a place in the world to do good.
I liked the movie, but there were some loose ends. If Sam hadn’t gone with Laura, Jolene would not have tried to seduce him and accused the doctor of rape. That part of the story showed the negative effects of behaviors like jealousy. It didn’t exhibit redemption through the apparition known as Sam. Overall, the movie makes an impact through one person played remarkably by John Schneider, who has the charisma to carry it off. However, I hate movies that end abruptly and leave you in acute emptiness. There is no B side of the story, about a woman keeping unwanted children and having to suffer for that decision by being unable to adequately support her children. The movie may also provoke unresolved guilt in women who went through with abortion and can’t redeem their decision. Grade: B