Wayne Roberts’ directorial debut, Katie Says Goodbye, follows the typical path of an indie movie set in a remote town where nothing much seems to happen. The theme is quite ordinary, describing the slow-paced life in the Southwest, with people living in poverty but dreaming big. The struggles are reduced to paying rent and getting through the day with little-paid jobs and wearing name-tagged uniforms. There is no other life outside the small community, yet there is always an optimistic dreamer who longs to escape the gloomy destiny reserved for anyone who had the misfortune to be born there.
In Katie Says Goodbye, the focal character is a young, sweet waitress that lives a trailer park with her mom and works at a truck stop bar in the middle of nowhere. Played by Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Katie is a ingenuous girl who works hard to support her alcoholic, indifferent mother while saving for a better life in San Francisco. However, she’s got a secret source of revenue — Katie prostitutes herself to the men from her small community. Her routine changes as she meets Bruno, a taciturn mechanic who has been locked up.
The protagonist seems to easily cope with her detestable job without much remorse or disgust, always showing a joyful face and polite manners as an indispensable member of the small community. “You do what you gotta do” — that’s Katie’s attitude, and she wastes no tears on her shortcomings, such as her unreliable mother, the loss of her father or growing up in a place that lacks opportunities. In fact, Katie seems more of a dewy-eyed character, willing to give her heart to a guy she hardly knows. Her need for affection is justified, as Katie says a prayer each night to remember he father. Given the loss, Bruno represents a surrogate; a manly protective figure that Katie needs to rely on. But the guy, played by Christopher Abbott (James White, Girls), couldn’t be farther from her paternal longings. While Katie gives up prostitution for him and projects her future plans with Bruno, he isn’t very responsive to her proofs of love and attention. It’s a source of amusement to see her acting all mushy with the supposed embodiment of her Prince Charming. Bruno is constantly dragged into Katie’s imaginary romance story, acting indifferent while she tries so hard to get to know him.
Katie’s decision to give up her old ways isn’t as simple as she initially hopes, and her attempt to have a normal life is disturbed by members of the community who feel like she belongs to them –it’s Katie’s duty, paid or not, to continue screwing them.
The film examines the hypocrisy of the patriarchal community that exploits a disadvantaged young woman and condemns her when dirty matters come to the surface. Such a miserable life remind of Lars von Trier’s Dogville protagonist, Grace (Nicole Kidman), the prototype victim of a reactionary society. While Roberts’ film bears similarities with Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — featuring heroines with high hopes and crushed dreams — Katie shows tremendous resilience in the face of her unstoppable misfortunes. The toxic masculinity that Scorsese so marvelously portrayed 40 years ago hasn’t changed so much, and Katie is a target of a similar “masculine” behaviour. No matter what happens to her, Katie maintains cheerful to the point of annoyance. There’s some potentially dangerous situations, but she isn’t distrustful. In this respect, the director explores various stereotypes in order to show the character’s endless credulity, like Katie accepting free rides through abandoned places or trusting her reckless mother to pay the rent. Paradoxically, it’s Katie’s inexperience that drove her into prostitution, as she willingly sleeps with her colleague’s father while her mother lures a married neighbour as well. There aren’t many positive examples for this young lady, so the only parenting she gets is from her kind boss Maybelle (Mary Steenburgen), who acts protective unlike her biological mother and truck driver Bear (played by an affable Jim Belushi), who cares for her well-being. He not only understands Katie’s particular situation, but provides the fatherly figure she needs, consoling her that everybody has a place in this world.
Balancing the amount of good-natured people in Katie’s life, writer-director Roberts keeps it real by filling Katie’s universe with realistic expectations. Her modest dream is to become a beautician, a thing she tries to diminish by always adding that it’s nothing fancy like being a lawyer or a doctor. Indeed, Katie doesn’t ask for much, yet her constant unpretentiousness might be at the core of her resilience in the face of all the humilities she has to suffer. Her availability, especially to men, is what makes her so submissive. Katie’s lack of entitlement also makes her nice and radiant. However, all these attributes are viewed as a weakness and an invitation to abuse her.
Katie Says Goodbye features impeccable cinematography, with the image giving priority to the limitless Arizona desert and showing the empty roads that seem to transit inhabited landscapes. The camera insists on close-ups, following every change in the protagonist’s expression while exploring her interactions through over-the-shoulder shots. Katie stares into the emptiness of the desert, almost like she’s trying to see what else is beyond the blue-pink horizon. In terms of editing, the transitions are seamless, tempering the powerful and violent scenes by hiding the actual suffering and keeping it elegantly private, yet suggesting action with the help of sound and significant ellipses. Notwithstanding, the music is dominating, pointing out every emotional moment in times when a more pragmatic approach could have served the narrative better. At times, the repetition tends to become tiresome as composer Dan Romer seems to overuse similar themes to point out the dramatic moments.
In Katie Says Goodbye, the myth of the American Dream is demolished. It’s a brutal demonstration that insinuates community values are dust in the wind. Roberts depicts antagonistic characters: an extremely sweet and innocent Katie versus the completely malevolent Dirk. Much Like Giulietta Masina’s unforgettable prostitute with a heart of gold from Federico Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria, Katie is the eternally hopeful type, prepared for the worst. Both women let suspicious men in their lives, whom they irrationally trust with their deepest and private affairs. While Masina’s performance seems somewhat overacted, like a feminine version of Charlot who faces hardships with a clown-frozen smile, Cooke opts for a more natural approach. If Cabiria constructs a comic persona to defend herself from the harshness of her realities, Katie’s ignorance is dressed up in a delightful smile that she genuinely maintains as her misfortunes hit. In a desperate cry for normality, Katie acts childish, overindulging in her boyfriend’s presence, asking silly questions and getting too excited with familial interactions. It’s the behaviour of a little girl who gets her first “Ken” and plays “mom and dad”; a juvenile joie de vivre that looks unexplainable due to her trailer park lifestyle and long hours at the diner. Although distant from Fellini’s Italian Neorealism and closer to indie aesthetics, Roberts’ film depicts the ugly realism of a hostile environment. Apart from their ill-famed occupations, both Masina’s Cabiria and Cooke’s Katie – two short-haired, little women — carry themselves proudly. Even when Katie goes through different humiliations, she raises her head high as if nothing can destroy her. One must appreciate how Cooke beautifully composes a character that irritates but doesn’t let the audience become indifferent.
All in all, Wayne Roberts’ directorial debut is a strong character composition, with a young woman striving for independence. But in order to obtain personal freedom, Katie has to play by society’s oppressive rules. With potential to be criticized by feminists as much as anti-feminists, Katie Says Goodbye doesn’t leave much screen time for the other actors. Furthermore, Roberts seems to make Katie pass through numerous obstacles for the enjoyment of the audience. By showing suffering and violence, however, Katie isn’t portrayed as a victim. Roberts is respectful of his characters, even if the reasoning behind some actions is poorly justified. It is hardly understandable why Katie wouldn’t speak up for herself, and why she would take the blame for actions she didn’t commit. But, it’s the inner strength of Katie, and how she rises above situations, that makes the film worthwhile. Roberts believes in the subtle force of his nice-as-pie protagonist, and he is right: Katie’s light outshines the blue Arizona sky.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic and programmer who resides in Spain. Apart from taking part in the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy and Talents Sarajevo in 2016, she has written for Indiewire, Desistfilm and collaborated with Romanian outlets such as Film Reporter, Observator Cultural and FILM magazine. Andreea is a programmer at Tenerife Shorts – Tenerife International Short Film Festival and has previously worked for Romanian Film Promotion.