By Alex Ramon.
The mix of the gritty and the romantic here feels fresh. Ultimately, the film is tender in tone, with unexpected humorous flashes that don’t feel forced.”
Premiering at Tribeca, and featured in the Polonica strand of Polish Film Festival in Gdynia and at Raindance 2022, Michał Chmielewski’s Roving Woman takes the viewer on a journey through the American southwest. A small but perfectly formed road movie with pleasing ’90s US indie vibes, the Wim Wenders-produced drama takes off from the real-life story of Connie Converse, a musician whose struggle to find success as a singer-songwriter in New York led her to pack up her possessions into her car and leave her home in August 1974, never to be seen again. While Converse’s fate remains unknown, her music was subsequently rediscovered and released; indeed, one of her aptly-named songs now provides Chmielewski’s film with its title. Rather than creating a standard-issue biopic of Converse, though, Chmielewski uses her mysterious story as inspiration for a contemporary ode to a solo female traveller who is taking what Joni Mitchell called “refuge in the roads.”
We’re first introduced to twentysomething Sara (Lena Góra, who co-wrote the screenplay with Chmielewski and also served as the film’s casting director) in the middle of a break-up with a (never seen) boyfriend who’s locked her out of their L.A. home. Her pleas and appeals falling on deaf ears, Sara – incongrously attired in evening dress and heels – initially hitches a ride with an acquaintance before stealing a car and taking off through the desert towns with no particular destination in mind. Encounters with various folk along the way – from an exuberant Southern stoner pair (delightfully played by real-life couple Bear Badeaux and Crystal Rivers) to a mysterious hitchhiker (a hilariously self-effacing cameo by veteran indie producer Chris Hanley) offer various perspectives on life, love and loneliness.
But it’s a CD of recordings – songs with spoken dedications that start to sound like personal addresses made to her – which Sara finds in the car that proves her most enduring companion, ultimately leading her to seek out their creator (John Hawkes) whose vehicle she stole.
Shot by Łukasz Dziedzic with an observant outsider’s eye (the film was substantially Polish funded), Roving Woman takes us down the byways overlooked by mainstream American cinema. Visually distinctive from its great opening slow zoom on a nocturnal L.A , the film memorably captures desert dusks and dawns, making its landscapes seem both strange and familiar, while several scenes are shot from a static camera within the car as conversations and events happen off screen. Appropriately, given the film’s inspiration, music is also a crucial part of the texture, with selections ranging from Converse’s compositions, through bespoke songs written and performed by Hawkes, to Kris Kristofferson ‘s “Casey’s Last Ride” and Robbie Basho’s “Blue Crystal Fire,” alongside Teoniki Rozynek’s distinctive score.
Making his debut feature, Chmielewski shows notable assurance in allowing the audience to feel their way into the film while providing enough information to keep us fully engaged. Details of Sara’s life are kept deliberately sketchy – a stilted phone call with her mother indicates a family schism but this remains only a hint – and some may wish for more of a fleshed-out back story for the protagonist. But ultimately the film proves effective in eschewing exposition to present us with Sara’s (often confounding) decisions and behaviour in the moment. Moreover, Góra (who made a strong impact in her role as the subversive daughter of a fascist family in Jan P. Matuszyński’s Canal+ period epic The King of Warsaw ) ensures that the character never feels like a cipher, instead keeping us attuned to all the contours of Sara’s solitude: the way it combines loneliness and liberation, a shifting reluctance and desire to connect. The sequence following her theft of the car, with her attitude shifting from fear and disbelief to glee, is wonderfully sustained, and her late encounter with Hawkes throws some narrative curveballs while retaining just the right bittersweet poignancy.
Inevitably, Roving Woman touches base with other female-focused road films, from Wanda (1970) through Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and Vagabond (1985) right up to Nomadland (2020). But the mix of the gritty and the romantic here feels fresh. Ultimately, the film is tender in tone, with unexpected humorous flashes (Sara’s in-car monologue addressing her absent ex is a highlight) that don’t feel forced. There’s a purity to the film, a hospitality that jibes with the folk music on its soundtrack. But Roving Woman is more than a disarming travelogue of tentative self-discovery. With Converse’s spirit and songs as a guiding light, the film is also a generation-spanning gesture of solidarity with history’s lost – and found – women of the road.
Roving Woman screens at Raindance Film Festival on 3 November.
Alex Ramon is a lecturer and critic currently based in Łódź, Poland. He is the author of the book Liminal Spaces: The Double Art of Carol Shields and writes for BFI, Sight & Sound, and other outlets. He blogs at Boycotting Trends.