“The World Made Straight” is a fresh indie film from Raleigh, North Carolina born director David Burris. Adapted from the Ron Rash novel of the same name, it concentrates on 1970s Appalachian North Carolina. Exquisitely shot and acted, “The World Made Straight” embodies deep-running themes prevalent throughout Southern literature, evoking a distinctly Carolina atmosphere.
Travis Shelton (Jeremy Irvine) is a high school drop –out floundering in his home town. He unceremoniously quits his job at the grocery store after showing mercy to an elderly customer, much to the chagrin of his father. Travis happens upon several marijuana plants, and takes the liberty of borrowing one, selling it to local dealer Leonard Shuler (Noah Wyle). The menacing drug lord Carlton Toomey (Steve Earle) confronts his small-time dealer Leonard about the plant. Despite a warning from Leonard, Travis returns to Carlton’s property for another plant, where he’s injured by a bear trap and caught by Toomey.
Frustrated with his father, Travis moves out of his parents’ house and arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of Shuler, who agrees to let Travis stay. While living with Leonard and his partner Dena (Minka Kelly), Leonard assumes responsibility for Travis. The older and wiser Shuler guides Shelton on an exploration of who he is as an individual, as well as a discovery of his familial history. A massacre from the Civil War era still splits the town, and names serve to separate the community. Travis earns his GED while living in Leonard’s trailer, and becomes increasingly interested in his lineage.
“The World Made Straight” maintains an inherently Southern vibe, notably conveying prominent themes of Southern literature. Most apparently is the focus on the self: Travis faces his evolution as a person, while educating himself on his family tree. He learns that his ancestors were slaughtered during the Civil War, a central event shown several times through flashbacks. Similarly, the former teacher Leonard features a murky background which unravels as the film progresses. He left his former teaching position under unclear circumstances, and there are rumors he shot a man.
Further tying “The World Made Straight” to its Southern roots are scenery and atmosphere. The movie was actually shot in North Carolina, where it is set. The small town feels genuine, and often shots pan over expanses of forest and farmland. Complementing the visuals is a twangy soundtrack, and gruff voiceover from Noah Wyle. There’s also a captivating concert from outlaw country star Steve Earle as Carlton.
Acting truly propels Burris’ flick to the next level, with inspired performances from a talented cast. Irvine portrays Travis as a conflicted adolescent struggling to mature in his hometown, and seeking guidance in a misguided world. Wyle lends Leonard a complex backstory, playing a pensive and brooding schoolteacher-turned drug dealer. Both actors are phenomenal at showing rather than telling their emotions and transformations throughout the film. Steve Earle provides a breakout portrayal of kingpin Carlton Toomey. Musicians don’t always translate well to acting, but Earle is wonderful, and could be mistaken for a veteran thespian. Though he’s been cast in several past roles, this is his meatiest. Earle crafts a drug lord who’s articulate and frightening while working on a crossword, a difficult feat. There’s also a much appreciated, albeit too small, appearance by Haley Joel Osment as Travis’ dull but amiable drinking buddy.
The written word doesn’t always translate well to the big-screen, but “The World Made Straight” is fantastic. It’s well acted, visually stimulating, and thought-provoking. Incorporation of actual historical events further enriches the movie. Travis’ romantic interest, Lori (Adelaide Clemens) tells Travis during the film that he “needs to start worrying less about the past and start thinking more about the future.” It’s applicable for Travis’s immediate plans, his fascination on his lineage, and the community as a whole. “The World Made Straight” is one of 2015’s freshest indie flicks, offering an entertaining and thought-provoking romp through 1970’s Appalachia.