There are times in “Ulee’s Gold,” the tender, heartfelt new film by Victor Nunez, that Peter Fonda looks almost like a clone of his late father, Henry.
This is not surprising on at least a couple of levels. Fonda shares his father’s lanky frame and laconic manner. And Nunez’s film is just the kind of study in emotions that the Oscar-winning patriarch of the Fonda acting clan used to specialize in playing.
Not that anyone has ever mistaken Peter Fonda for a great actor. His “Easy Rider” made Hollywood history, not to mention a couple of saddlebags full of money. But awards always have been the province of Henry and Peter’s eminently more talented sister Jane.
That may change now - not necessarily because Peter’s acting has improved so much but because, as the lead character, he’s been so perfectly cast.
In “Ulee’s Gold,” Fonda plays one Ulysses Jackson, a Florida beekeeper, widower and surrogate father to his two granddaughters. His is a peaceful, if somewhat stifling existence, broken only by the elder girl’s (Jessica Biel) penchant for pierced body parts and occasional act of rebellion.
Ulee spends his days working with his bees, his nights nursing his aching, aging body. In between, he tries to raise the two girls with a spirit of uncompromising self-reliance that tends to shut everyone else out.
But then things change.
The girls’ father, Ulee’s son Jimmy (Tom Wood) - who is in prison for robbery - calls and asks for a favor: His wife, Helen (Christine Dunford), is in trouble, and he needs Ulee to help her out.
Reluctantly agreeing, Ulee contacts Eddie (Steve Flynn) and Ferris (Dewey Weber), former friends of his son and petty hoods in their own right. They lead Ulee to Helen, but they also leave him with a threat: Give them the remainder of the money that Jimmy stole, or they’ll come looking for it.
Aside from the fact that Ulee is no longer the young Vietnam veteran he once was, a Purple Heart winner with a bad knee, this problem couldn’t have come at a worse time. Ulee has only a couple of weeks to work his bees and collect the much-sought-after Tupelo Honey that pays most of his year’s expenses.
So in between hauling bee hives and processing the honeycombs, Ulee is forced to retrieve the drugged-up woman and then weather her self-destructive urges while trying to protect the young girls from their mother’s rage. In the midst of all this, he must also fetch stolen money for a pair of gun-toting punks.
Throughout, Fonda’s Ulee remains a noble source of quiet strength. The kind of man who, on the outside, would seem to be more happy dealing with bees than he is his far more troublesome human tribe, Ulee is merely covering up the pain that he feels keenly - maybe still over his Vietnam experiences, but especially over his wife’s death some six years before.
Nunez’s intent is to show how this resolute man ultimately finds the way to change, not just for himself but for those around him. And how they change in response.
In doing so, Nunez resorts to the same kind of small-budget, gradually paced, reality-based kind of filmmaking style that he showed off to such good effect in “Ruby in Paradise.” Like “Ruby,” which made Ashley Judd a star, “Ulee’s Gold” is a film that never rushes toward a moment, never punctuates an emotion with more than just the right amount of energy.
In all he does, the greatest gift that Nunez provides filmgoers is his willingness to buck the trends of contemporary filmmaking. And just when when “Ulee’s Gold” seems to be headed in a predictable direction, Nunez takes us somewhere else completely.
Along the way, there’s nary a false moment to be found. Not among the Florida locations, not among the characters (who depend more on inner resources than gunfire to resolve their problems) and certainly not among the performances (if Fonda is right for the part, then everyone else - including Patricia Richardson of television’s “Home Improvement” - ends up bolstering his efforts).
Even the closing song, Van Morrison singing “Tupelo Honey,” strikes just the right note of sweet desire and persistent longing.
Of course, all this is accentuated by the contrast around us. We are still in the midst of the summer-movie season, so the nation’s screens are filled with aliens of one shape or another - those from outer space as well as those from Hollywood casting - and all of them seem to be having fun blowing up more cars than Cal Worthington ever dreamed of.
Into this arena “Ulee’s Gold” comes strolling like a soft summer breeze. Or like the second coming of Henry Fonda.
Either way, you aren’t apt to see its like again anytime soon.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Ulee’s Gold” **** Location: Newport Cinemas Credits: Written and directed by Victor Nunez, starring Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson, Christine Dunford, Tom Wood, Jessica Biel, Vanessa Zima, Steven Flynn, Dewey Weber, J. Kenneth Campbell Running time: 1:43 Rating: R
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