Writer-director Erika Arlee, along with a cast and crew made up mostly of women, pulls back the curtain on North Carolinian poverty in A Song for Imogene. Cheyenne (Kristi Ray) discovers she’s pregnant by her emotionally abusive live-in boyfriend, Alex (Haydn Winston). Soon after, she learns of her mother’s untimely death. Cheyenne is desperately poor, as is everyone around her, with very limited options for dealing with life’s challenges.
From the daily drudgery of subsistence living, Cheyenne is suddenly fighting a war on three fronts. She’s trying to break free of Alex and must settle her mother’s estate while arranging a memorial. Then she’s surprised by the return of her estranged sister Janelle (McKenzie Barwick) after years. Further complicating the situation is the fact that Janelle shows up with her 5-year-old son in tow, which Cheyenne did not know about. Instead of crumbling under all these blows, Cheyenne finds within herself the strength and dignity she had not expressed in her life to this point.
For the viewer, taking this trip with Cheyenne is heartbreaking but ultimately rewarding as we live the experience with her. How will she process all the sudden trauma, and where will she come out the other side? As Cheyenne grows with grace and pride into a new life, she must decide what legacy parts of her world to jettison and what new elements to keep. Cheyenne has turned away from her love of music at Alex’s insistence, but she’s still recognized around town for her performances of the Tanya Tucker song Delta Dawn. That old song, well known to every country music lover, provides a fulcrum for the levers of the film. It perfectly paints this culture and the places women find themselves in it.
“From the daily drudgery of subsistence living, Cheyenne is suddenly fighting a war on three fronts.”
Throughout A Song for Imogene, Ray and Barwick give beautiful performances as the two sisters who have years of separation and deep family baggage. Winston’s is equally inspired. Alex is both menacing and pathetically ineffectual. He sees the women in his life alternately as mothers or w****s, and nothing besides. He comes across as almost feral in his intense blindness to Cheyenne’s personality and humanity.
The production company for the film is Honey Head Films. It includes both Arlee and Ray working to make films that are independently financed and locally produced in rural North Carolina. They present the authentic lives of an underrepresented demographic in the flyover states. Their stories are focused on female resilience and empowerment, centered on a culture where those ideas still strain against the patriarchal culture of the old South.
For anyone familiar with the South, particularly North Carolina, A Song for Imogene is authentic to the point of being almost painful. There has been a trend in the last few years of quality independent films telling real stories from this lesser-known part of the United States. This film joins that burgeoning genre. It’s gritty and real and shows life less in dramatic gestures than in quiet, teeth-grinding, sickening moments of silent panic.
The genesis of the film also makes for a great story. It was originally a 7-minute short called Lorelei, which starred both Arlee and Ray. After showing the short at festivals for a few years, they decided there was an appetite for these characters, and they would find a larger audience. This realization drove them to embark on making the feature film. A Song for Imogene is powerful, and its accomplishments are remarkable on both sides of the camera.
A Song for Imogene screened at the Bentonville Film Festival.
"…gritty and real and shows life less in dramatic gestures than in quiet, teeth-grinding, sickening moments..."