Citizen Ruth marks Alexander Payne’s feature debut in 1996. Like his follow-up and breakthrough film, Election, it’s a satirical comedy circling around a big issue. It premiered at Sundance that year and upon general release made little money or impact.
Laura Dern stars as Ruth, a highly irresponsible young woman, who’s introduced being rudely thrown out of her (possible) boyfriend’s dingy apartment. From there she goes on to purchase some industrial substance to inhale, and beg for money from her brother, who refuses to help her. Soon she ends up arrested for the umpteenth time, and learns that she is pregnant. This is in fact her fifth pregnancy; she’s previously had four kids, all of whom were taken from her. The judge presiding over her case gives her an unusual offer at this point; he’ll be more lenient with her sentencing if she gets an abortion. This unlikely situation lands Ruth in the odd position of being fought over by ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ groups.
Taking on the always controversial topic of abortion seems like a very bold move for any filmmaker, particularly a first-time one, as many people will have a knee-jerk reaction to any statement on it. Citizen Ruth finds a way around this by not actually taking any position on abortion itself. Its goal is to equally satirise both sides of the debate. In some ways it succeeds in this, as the lengths to which the activists portrayed in the film will go to forward their agenda are both blackly humorous and frankly, entirely plausible (indeed, many people have gone to much further lengths in real life). There was the issue at the back of my mind throughout that a film taking this approach always has the potential to just come off as smug, ridiculing anyone that has an opinion on a topic but not actually having anything to say about it yourself. Citizen Ruth walks a fine line here but mostly comes out alright.
There is a big problem with the film though; Ruth herself. Ruth is someone it’s very hard to feel any sympathy for. She’s an entirely selfish, careless person, who continues using drugs despite knowing of her pregnancy. That fact that this could potentially be her fifth child could itself be seen as an unintentional argument for abortion.
The film does get some good moments contrasting her open abrasiveness with the bogus niceties of those there to ‘help’ her, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the film would be more effective if she’d been more of a victim, whose ultimate outcome was something to worry about.
Looking back at it now, you can see how Citizen Ruth sowed the seeds for Payne’s next film Election, which is a considerable improvement. He can hardly even announce a new film now without getting showered in awards buzz, but I doubt anyone would have done so with his debut, even without its tricky subject matter.
‘The Lesser Seen’ is a feature in which I highlight a lower-profile film or two by a well-known director.