Bonus Features: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes, is a deceptive work of broad commercial appeal that also carries out a wicked subversive streak just below the polite charms of its genteel surface. Fried Green Tomatoes looks & acts like a Normal movie aimed to stoke mainstream America’s nostalgia for “The Good Old Days” of the vintage American South. That bait-and-switch allows the film to constantly veer into abrupt bursts of absurdist humor, grisly violence, and heartfelt lesbian romance without much of an uproar from its Normie audience. It’s that exact clash between the conventional vs. an underplayed indulgence in the bizarre that makes the movie such a treat for me. It’s both proudly traditional & wildly unpredictable, paradoxically so.

It would be difficult to recommend further viewing for audiences who want to see more films that pull off that exact balancing act between tradition & subversion. Luckily, though, Fried Green Tomatoes is not the only film around that heavily relies on the traditional charms of fierce Southern Women to sneak its own hidden agendas & indulgences past mainstream audiences’ defenses. Here are a few suggested pairings of movies you could watch if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to experience more cinema that falls on the quietly dark side of Southern twang.

Crazy in Alabama (1999)

In my mind, the clearest parallel to Fried Green Tomatoes‘s clash between the conventional & the morbidly bizarre is the 1999 black comedy Crazy in Alabama. The only major difference is that Fried Green Tomatoes is subtly subversive, while Crazy in Alabama is gleefully over-the-top. Melanie Griffith is flamboyant as the anchor to the film’s violent side, playing a kooky Southern Woman who poisons & decapitates her abusive husband so she can run off to become a Hollywood star (a straight-up trial-run for her future role as Honey Whitlock in John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented). Lucas Black costars as her favorite nephew, whom she left back home to deal with the exponential civil unrest of the Civil Rights 1960s. These two disparate storylines—one where an over-the-top Hollywood starlet regularly converses with her husband’s severed head (which she carries around in a hatbox) and one where a young white boy becomes a local hero by bravely declaring “Racism is bad” and attending fictional Martin Luther King, Jr rallies—are only flimsily connected by occasional phone calls shared between these two unlikely leads. It’s the same bifurcated, traditional vs. absurdist story structure as Fried Green Tomatoes, except that there’s nothing subtle at all about what it’s doing. Everything is on the surface and cranked incredibly loud (which suits my sensibilities just fine).

If you need any convincing that these movies make a good pairing, consider that Fannie Flagg, the novelist who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, has an extended cameo as a roadside diner waitress in Crazy in Alabama. Flagg’s entire purpose in her one featured scene is to cheer on Griffith’s crazed, wanted-murderer protagonist out of admiration for her breaking out of an abusive marriage in the way she personally saw best (sawing off her husband’s head). The audience has to share that baseline appreciation for wild Southern Women at their most hyper-violent to be fully on-board with either of these titles, which is partly what makes them a perfect match. Just don’t go into Crazy in Alabama expecting the same quiet, controlled hand that doles out the absurdist tangents in Fried Green Tomatoes. It’s the first feature film directed by Antonio Banderas and he eagerly allows the space for his then-spouse, Griffith, to run as wild as she pleases.

Now and Then (1995)

This suggestion is something of a cheat, since Now and Then is technically set in Indiana. However, it was filmed in Georgia and looks & feels entirely Southern to my Louisianan eyes. Like Fried Green Tomatoes, its story is bifurcated between two timelines: the increasingly cynical days of the 1990s and a rose-tinted view of a simpler past that was both more dangerous and more romantically Authentic. It even begins its feature-length flashback to “The Good Old Days” by explaining that children used to have to go on adventures & get into mischief to entertain themselves “in the days before MTV & Nintendo . . .” While the adult versions of our central group of childhood friends indulge in a distinctly 90s brand of Gen-X sarcasm (especially among Rosie O’Donnell & Demi Moore’s moody banter), their childhood versions purely ascribe to a gee-willickers coming-of-age adventurism that’s purely heartfelt & sentimental (as portrayed by child actor superstars like Christina Ricci, Thora Birch, and Gaby Hoffman). From the crisply uniform tableaus of freshly built cookie-cutter suburbs to the sequences of young girls singing Motown hits in unison while riding bicycles down dirt roads, the nostalgia on display here is lethally potent, to the point where I genuinely could not tell if this is the first time I’ve seen it. Now and Then is the exact kind of VHS-era lazy afternoon comfort viewing that feels as if it’s always been part of your DNA.

Unlike Fried Green Tomatoes & Crazy in Alabama, Now and Then doesn’t use this nostalgic charm as a cover for extreme dips into subversively morbid subject matter. If anything, it ultimately plays more like a softer, safer variation on Steven King’s nostalgia-classic Stand By Me, complete with the wistful narration track from a jaded adult who’s “seen it all.” The childhood friends at the center of the picture do launch their own D.I.Y. investigation of an unsolved murder from decades into their town’s past, one that invites ghostly seances, potentially dangerous strangers, and brief moments of lethal peril into their otherwise safe suburban lives. Mostly, though, the threats that arise during this murder mystery aren’t meant to elicit a genuine in-the-moment danger so much as they’re meant to highlight the conflicts & insecurities that haunt the girls’ variously troubled home lives and internal struggles with self-esteem. I’d most recommend Now and Then to Fried Green Tomatoes fans who’re more into that film’s nursing home visits & nightswimming intimacies than its freak train accidents and wild swerves into cannibalism. It’s a much better-behaved film overall, but an equally nostalgic one in its scene-to-scene details (including the ultra-specific 90s Girl™ fantasy of getting to smoke cigarettes with a young Brendan Fraser at his beefcakiest).

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Our one major stipulation for Movie of the Month selections is that they must be films that no one else in the crew has seen. Because bits & pieces of Fried Green Tomatoes were constantly looping on television when I was a kid, I honestly wasn’t sure if I had ever seen it all the way through before or not. Once I got into the lesbian & cannibal tangents that distinguish the film from its fellow works in the Southern Women Nostalgia canon, though, it was clear that I hadn’t actually seen it – at least not as a complete picture. In fact, I had been mistaking my memories of the title with another, unrelated work that similarly got the round-the-clock television broadcast treatment in the 1990s: Steel Magnolias.

Having now watched Fried Green Tomatoes & Steel Magnolias back-to-back in their entirety, I can confirm that they’re really nothing alike, except that they’re about the lives of fierce Southern Women. I much preferred Fried Green Tomatoes out of the pair, but Steel Magnolias was still charming in its own way. Adapted from a stage play, the film is mostly centered on the life & times of a small clique of heavily-accented women who frequent the same beauty shop (run by matriarch beautician Dolly Parton). Like a hetero precursor to Sordid Lives, much of the film’s humor derives from the Southern idiosyncrasies in the women’s mannerisms & idle banter as they gossip in the beauty salon between dye jobs & perms. The darkness that creeps into the frame springs from the women’s lives outside the salon, particularly the medical drama of a fiercely protective mother (Sally Fields) and her severely diabetic daughter (Julia Roberts) who pushes her body too far in order to live up to the Southern ideal of a traditional housewife.

The details of the medical melodrama that drives Steel Magnolias fall more into tear-jerking weepie territory than the wildly violent mood swings of Fried Green Tomatoes, but sometimes you have to take what you can get. The most outrageous the film gets in any one scene is a moment of crisis when Sally Fields has to force-feed orange juice to a deliriously over-acting Julia Roberts in the middle of a diabetic seizure. Her repeated shouts of “Drink the juice, Shelby!” had me howling, and I’m sure that scene is just as iconic in some irony circles as “No wire hangers, ever!” is in others. All told, though, that storyline is too sobering & sad to mock at length, and you have to genuinely buy into the dramatic tragedy of the narrative to appreciate the film on its own terms. I won’t say it’s as convincing of a dramatic core as the unspoken lesbian romance of Fried Green Tomatoes, but it’s effective in its own, smaller way. Anyone with endless room in their hearts for Southern Women as a cultural archetype should be able to appreciate both films enough for Steel Magnolias to survive the comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling (2019)

You hardly have any time to adjust to the updated look & feel of the 2019 reboot of Rocko’s Modern Life before the movie makes fun of you for struggling to adapt to the change. In the new series timeline, the titular cartoon wallaby has been floating in outer space with his three animal besties (a cow named Heffer, a turtle named Filbert, and his pet dog Spunky) while watching the same rerun of their favorite cartoon, The Fatheads, over and over and over again. This absurd state of preserved, perpetual stasis is clearly coded as a comment on the real-life audience’s nostalgia for an ancient, deeply silly cartoon show from the 1990s – right down to its vintage orange VHS cassette packaging that all Nickelodeon shows were immortalized on in their home video form. Rocko is perfectly happy in his rut of watching the same show on loop for decades, asking “Isn’t it great how some things never change?” Obviously, a lot has changed in the 23 years since Rocko’s Modern Life has been on the air, which is immediately apparent in the crisp digital look of its updated 2010s animation style. Acknowledging & confronting those changes head-on quickly becomes the entire point of this straight-to-Netflix sequel to the show, which smartly interrogates the necessity of its own existence in a way that justifies the entire exercise beyond its value as a nostalgia stoker.

Once their outer space hiatus inevitably ends, Rocko & crew rejoin the citizens of Earth to find that a lot of change has transpired here in their absence. While Rocko can overlook his buddies’ fascination with the food trucks, smartphones, and 3D printers that define this new normal of the 2010s, he struggles with the revelation that his favorite cartoon show has been cancelled while they were gone. Most of Static Cling concerns Rocko’s campaign to Bring Back The Fatheads as a 2010s reboot, a Sisyphean effort to preserve just one thing as it was 20 years ago instead of accepting that everything changes with time. Mishaps in bringing back the series’ original creator, fighting off corporate directives to cut corners by having it computer-animated, and preventing the original show’s central dynamic between its main characters from shifting at all drive Rocko mad as he attempts to control just one aspect of his life in a constantly changing world. Those struggles also directly reflect the effort to bring back Rocko’s Modern Life in a meaningful way, of course, so it’s for the best that the movie eventually settles on an “Embracing change is the key to happiness” message, even if it pauses to make fun of 2010s concepts like “going viral” and to adjust to modern concerns like the evolution of modern transgender identity politics before it can get there. It’s wonderful that the return of the show found a way to be about something instead of merely skating by as an empty nostalgia exercise, even if that Something was empty nostalgia exercises.

It’s worth noting that Rocko’s Modern Life hasn’t changed so drastically in this modern iteration that it’s no longer recognizable. Its proto-SpongeBob hyperactivity and grotesque dedication to gross-out details like booger jars & prehensile nipples remain intact, as do the basic character traits & vocal performances of its main cast. The movie just doesn’t pretend that the world is exactly the same as it was when we last visited the show, instead adjusting its purpose for existing to address that exact cultural shift. It works both as a 90s nostalgia generator and as a meaningful work of modern animation in its own right, which is more than anyone should have reasonably expected from this straight-to-streaming novelty.

-Brandon Ledet

If You Enjoyed Dope (2015) You Should Double Back & Watch The Wood (1999)

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Although the recent coming-of-age teen comedy Dope felt like the emphatic debut of a just-out-of-film school youngster (in terms of energy, not competence) it was actually the work of a director who’s been lurking in Hollywood for more than 15 years. In that time, Rick Famuyiwa has only been able to get four feature films off the ground, which, judging by the two I’ve seen, is a total shame. Famuyima has a smart, authentic, straightforward lens through which he examines youth & nostalgia, both in his most recent effort Dope & in his actual debut, a small-scale charmer made for MTV Films 15 years ago called The Wood.

The Wood & Dope have a lot in common besides the name in the director’s credit. While Dope is set in the present it looks back to 90s music & fashion for inspiration. The Wood splits its time between (the then present) 1999 & flashbacks to the 1980s, equally conscious of reconstructing the styles & sounds of a bygone era as Dope. The flashback chapters of The Wood are introduced through spinning vinyl records, Jheri curls are hilariously abundant, and the high school age protagonists wear clothes so dated that they’ve already had their vintage cool heyday and have gone back to tacky again. Both Dope & The Wood feature protagonists speaking directly to the audience, follow young teens getting into heaps of trouble trying to shed their virginity, happen to include a disgusting puke gag, and discuss the small changes of course that can turn a young nerd into a perceived-violent criminal in the particularly hazardous social minefield of Inglewood, California, where both movies are set. As if that weren’t enough of a solid connection, both films also feature a character named Stacey played by actor De’aundre Bondsl, who are ostensibly the same person (although Dope doesn’t make that connection explicit).

Of course, Dope & The Wood aren’t exact copies of each other and if I had to choose a favorite of the two, I’m inclined to lean towards the more energetic cartoonishness of Dope. The Wood does stand up quite well on its own, though, and helps to reveal a director with a keen eye for nostalgia & growing pains instead of the out-of-nowhere youngin’ with something to prove that I assumed directed Dope when I first saw the trailers. With these two films Famuyiwa establishes a genuine, confident voice that allows him to both tackle the intricacies of gang violence & the inconvenience of public boners. If you enjoyed Dope, I highly recommend giving The Wood a look for context. If you’ve already seen & enjoyed both, maybe just keep an eye out for Famuyiwa’s other films, both past & future. That’s what I plan on doing, anyway.

-Brandon Ledet