Reviews - New York Times

Critic's Pick

Good Samaritans May Not Be What They Seem
By Stephen Holden
Published: December 5, 2003

What Alice Found," a small, finely wrought drama about a naïve young woman who gets lost on the American highway, gives that wonderfully salty New York stage actress Judith Ivey one of the chewiest roles of her career as a weatherbeaten truck-stop prostitute. The true profession of her character, Sandra, who cruises the interstate in a recreational vehicle driven by her older husband and business partner, Bill (Bill Raymond), a former marine, isn't revealed until midway in the film, which takes a sudden, sinister left turn once the beans are spilled.

Were it a mainstream Hollywood movie, this is the point at which "What Alice Found," written and directed by A. Dean Bell, would veer into a nightmarish melodrama of imprisonment and attempted escape. Instead the movie, filmed in murky digital video, has the courage to travel a higher, twistier moral road.

Throughout the film, which opens today in New York, Sandra is observed through the slowly dawning perspective of 18-year-old Alice (Emily Grace), who is driving from New Hampshire to Miami in a battered Ford Escort. Like Sandra, Alice isn't what she appears to be at first. Her official story, that she is moving to Florida to attend college and study marine biology, is a pipe dream. She is really fleeing a dead-end working-class existence in New England, having stolen some money from her employer in a supermarket. Once in Miami, she plans to impose on a friend who has made it clear she is none too eager to have Alice as a guest.

Sandra is the folksy good Samaritan who comes to the rescue after Alice discovers one of her tires slashed at a rest area somewhere in the Carolinas. Having already had a scary encounter on the highway with a car full of menacing louts, she is all too willing to believe Sandra's suggestion that the slashing might be a calculated prelude to an attempted assault.

When the couple volunteer to let her follow them down the highway, Alice gratefully accepts their offer of protection. But no sooner have they hit the road than her car breaks down. Once again the good Samaritans are only too eager to help. Urging Alice to abandon her vehicle, they promise to drive her to her destination.

But Sandra's kindness doesn't stop there. Clucking over her passenger like a mother hen, she buys her a sexy new dress and has her hair restyled and her eyebrows painted Cleopatra-style. It isn't until they reach another truck stop, where a young man invites Alice into his cab and offers her money, that she realizes there's more to Sandra's generosity than pure altruism. Coming clean, Sandra bluntly outlines the rules of the profession in the tone of a housewife passing on her recipe for brownies, and Alice wiltingly acquiesces to the notion of turning tricks. The one rule that rankles is Sandra's insistence that all money earned be locked in a safe.

If your first impulse is to view Sandra as a venal monster posing as a friend, Ms. Ivey's performance and Mr. Bell's screenplay systematically undermine that cliché. Mingled with Sandra's treachery is a genuine warmth and affection for Alice, and Ms. Ivey uncovers simultaneous layers of cunning, hominess and disappointment in the character. As Alice plies her new trade, the movie depicts her work as more boring than degrading, and her clients less as exploiters than as chumps who are pathetically grateful for her minimal servicing. In the age of Jerry Springer, turning tricks may carry no heavy taint of opprobrium. Prostitution is one of the dreary but well-paying jobs a young woman can take to make ends meet. Once the rules of the road have been absorbed, it's no big deal.

"What Alice Found" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for sexual situations and some strong language.


Written and directed by A. Dean Bell; director of photography, Richard Connors; edited by Chris Houghton; art director, Bryce Williams; produced by Mr. Connors; released by Castle Hill Productions and Dream LLC. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 97 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Judith Ivey (Sandra), Bill Raymond (Bill), Emily Grace (Alice), Jane Lincoln Taylor (Sally), Justin Parkinson (Sam) and Tim Hayes (Danny).Type your paragraph here.