I would count myself a big fan of actress Reese Witherspoon (see my personal anecdotes on my middle school crush in Random Factoids #49 and #88), yet I somehow managed to only learn of the existence of “Freeway” in 2015. This film stars a younger Witherspoon as Vanessa Lutz, the daughter of a prostitute who has to do and say some unmentionables in the name of self-preservation and survival in a gritty urban environment. She goes to prison, not to visit a client like Elle Woods but actually as an inmate.
This 1996 oddity might not fit Witherspoon’s squeaky-clean sweet Southern belle image, but it certainly gives her something out of the ordinary. This modern retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale is a peculiar burst of energy from writer/director Matthew Bright, who has since done relatively little of note. But his debut feature is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it never holds back in its peculiar assessment of American culture as seen from the vantage point of its underbelly.
Witherspoon quickly asserts her pluckiness in “Freeway,” chaining up her social worker in order to seek refuge from her long-last grandmother. On the way, however, she gets drawn into the clutches of the conniving serial killer Bob Wolverton. Keifer Sutherland plays his wolf not as big and bad, but rather as eerily unsettling and deceptively meek. (That was basically the mold of the ’90s murderer, so it makes sense.)
Somewhere on the path to grandmother’s house, “Freeway” changes up the script. The film’s Little Red takes a step into the big leagues by gaining a welcome sense of agency, taking the film on an unexpected detour into courtrooms, prisons, and a trial by media. The changes ought to prompt some stimulating discussion about what is and is not still relevant from the old tale. By transplanting Little Red Riding Hood into modern society, rather than simply tweaking her story in a mythic milieu like “Into the Woods,” “Freeway” invites a freer dialogue.
Interestingly, when I went back to read reviews from the time of release, most critics reacted to the film as a satire. “Freeway” still maintains a sense of exaggeration, sure, but it has lost a bit of shock after years of reality TV highlighting such unique specimens as Honey Boo-Boo, the Jersey Shore, and the Duck Dynasty family. Nearly two decades after its Sundance premiere, though, its gentle mockery of the strange corners of America still entertains and excites. Much of the film’s bite today comes from Witherspoon, who once again seems willing to explore these rough edges of her persona in “Wild” and beyond.