Katie Holmes plays a sweet, caring substitute teacher who moves into a crime-ridden neighbourhood when she takes up her new post at a local elementary school. Her eccentric, Mary Poppins demeanour and kind-heartedness soon catches the attention of local sheriff Mike, played by James Badge Dale. Unbeknownst to the sheriff, Miss Meadows leads a double life as a vigilante, administering justice down the barrel of a gun to those who she sees as a threat to the decent, law-abiding citizens of the community.
As is clear from the opening scene, this is a film that relies on the juxtaposition of its titular character’s candy-coated personality and trigger happy vigilantism. On the one hand, Miss Mary Meadows is the perfect picture of innocence and goodness, spending her time weeding the garden, preparing tea and crumpets and spouting moralistic maxims as rhythmically as the clicks of her tap-dancing shoes. On the other hand, she spends the film administering violent retribution against those who refuse to respect the freedoms enjoyed by everyday folk. What’s debatable, however, is whether or not the film does enough to make us side wholly with Meadows in either of these aspects; or indeed, whether we are supposed to.
There is something wholly American in the film’s individualistic attitude to goodness, justice and freedom. The message seems to be that, when legal bureaucracy hinders the protection of the innocent from the evils of society, it is not entirely out of place for citizens to take matters into their own hands and take on the roles of judge, jury and executioner.
While Holmes’s character certainly struggles with the ethical dilemmas raised through her actions, we the audience are ultimately encouraged to side with her. The narrative may attempt to question the actions of the protagonist – not least through her conversations with Sheriff Mike regarding the likelihood of criminal rehabilitation – but ultimately, and certainly in the film’s closing moments, the viewer is encouraged to support Miss Meadows and her unconstitutional (to evoke the ubiquitous Americanism) distribution of justice. As she herself says: “I think it’s okay to break the rules sometimes.”
For one thing, there is little attempt to explore the complexities of criminal behaviour. These are not petty criminals neglected by society. Most of the crimes carried out by the film’s villains are sexual in nature, making the audience – and rightly so – feel utter revulsion and in no two minds as to the guilt of Meadows’s victims. During the film’s only non-sexual crime, the plea of insanity for murder is worryingly criticised as nothing but a ‘get out of jail free’ card played by morally bankrupt defence attorneys. Even Sheriff Mike, who we might expect to have a more conventional attitude to the administering of justice, struggles to wholeheartedly condemn the actions of his new-found sweetheart.
In terms of performances, Katie Holmes works exceptionally well with a script that, at times, is clumsy. The character of Miss Meadows is often irritating in her constantly positive outlook, but also her audacity in extolling the virtues of goodness while committing numerous acts of murder in cold blood. Were it not for Holmes’s proficiency in putting across the inner turmoil of the protagonist and treating a wholly unbelievable character with subtlety and humanity, the film might not stand up well at all.
James Badge Dale is relatively uninspiring as the local sheriff who falls head-over-heels in love with Miss Meadows, lacking both the energy and the emotional range of his onscreen counterpart. Of particular note, however, is Callan Mulvey, who plays a supposedly reformed child abuser who moves into the neighbourhood and soon catches the attention of the central character. Mulvey initially evokes pathos as a washed-up paedophile suffering the scorn of society, a la Kevin Bacon’s moralistically complex The Woodsman (2004), but this pathos is quickly replaced by disgust as the character’s true nature comes to light. What is unclear, however, is whether this rapid resumption of sexual criminality is inevitable, or whether Miss Meadows brings this change about herself through the violent threats she directs at him. Again, while the film may put up the pretence of exploring the nature of justice and retribution, plot devices like this make it clear which way the audience is supposed to swing.
Aside from Holmes’s performance, two other aspects of the film stand out. Firstly, director Karen Leigh Hopkins’s astute sense of pacing. The narrative moves quickly and succinctly, wasting no time in putting the plot into action, introducing the central love story and asking questions regarding its moralistic subject matter. Secondly, Miss Meadows’s relationship with her mother creates some interesting and entertaining dialogue, providing some of the script’s strongest moments. However, to delve deeper into why this aspect of the film is especially interesting would be to give away one of the film’s major plot twists.
Miss Meadows is probably a film that works better on paper, and perhaps the rushed feel of its execution – as well as the disappointingly haphazard conclusion – is due to its having been filmed in just over two weeks. However, this fast pacing does give the film a decidedly ‘indie’ feel to it and more often than not works to its advantage. It will, at the very least, help it achieve cult status, but the overall feeling is that Katie Holmes is the film’s saviour, bringing clarity and order to a story that is, while well-meaning, often confused and disjointed.
Words: Iain Todd @Iain_GM_Todd