“We did it for the box-office potential,” Stahl jokes during a recent visit to San Francisco to promote the film, which opens Friday.
“Actors look for movies like this,” he says, more seriously. “It’s a simple, character-driven story.” Stahl noted that his character is quiet, introspective and a creature ofhabit.
The independent film tells the story of Joleen (co-producer and co-star Theron, who doesn’t have tons of screen time), a woman in desperate straits who literally walks out on her preteen daughter Tara (AnnaSophia Robb), leaving the 11-year-old with her uncle James (Stahl).
James, who lives hand-to-mouth as a worker on a road crew, is pleasant and inoffensive, and he wants to help his sister, but on paper, he’s certainly not someone equipped to deal with parenting.
At the outset of the film, Joleen is in trouble with the law; she also goes off gallivanting with a grungy, insensitive guy while Tara hangs out unattended at James’ grim apartment. Not long after, Joleen disappears, leaving Tara a note and a little bit of money, saying she’ll be back in a month.
Theron says she doesn’t necessarily view Joleen as irresponsible, and she doesn’t approach the role judging the character as good or bad.
“I try and come more from the gut,” says the Oscar-winning actress, known for playing gritty parts — such as her award-winning turn in “Monster” — that defy her movie-star good looks. “The only thing that I’m aiming for is the truth.”
Both Stahl and Theron were interested in exploring how James and Joleen’s upbringing, living a contentious family life as children (their father is played by Dennis Hopper), led them to their current circumstances.
“James and Joleen were products of an abusive household,” Stahl says. “It affects both of their lives as adults.”
The film, which is unusually quiet, urgent and tragic simultaneously, has a Shakespearean element,as well as themes of redemption. Despite the characters’ truly sad situations, and the bleak physicality of their surroundings, the film offers a possible promise of change.
“The one thing we always have is hope,” Theron says. “It’s the only reason why I wanted to make this movie. All we have is hope, even if we don’t have a penny in our pockets.”