Film review: New Horton Foote documentary gets to the heart of a writer

Director Anne Rapp takes us along for a heartening ride with the Texas legend


People who follow the Texas literary scene know that the late Horton Foote ranks among the best of the state’s writers. So it’s gratifying to report that a new documentary about him captures his brilliance and warmth and bolsters his place in the literary canon.

“Horton Foote: The Road Home” explores the themes and characters of Foote’s many tales and screen adaptations, from “Tender Mercies” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “The Trip to Bountiful” and “The Orphans’ Home Cycle.” It will premiere Oct. 24, as part of the Austin Film Festival and Conference at a limited-admission screening at the Paramount Theatre, and then become available on the festival’s streaming platform on Oct. 25.

The writers’ festival started Oct. 22 and continues through Oct. 29, but most of the events are streaming via because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Foote documentary is a longterm project of Austin screenwriter and director Anne Rapp, who met Foote in 1981, when she was the script supervisor for “Tender Mercies.” (Foote won the Oscar for best original screenplay for “Mercies” — his second Oscar after winning for screenplay adaptation for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”)

On the set, Foote and Rapp became friends, in part because of their love of storytelling and in part because they both grew up in small Texas towns, Foote in Wharton and Rapp in Estelline.

In the years that followed, Foote and Rapp stayed in touch through letters, while Foote worked in New York. Once he came back to Wharton in his later years, Rapp would visit him at his home there, and they would spend hours driving around the town while he told stories about the people who lived on various streets.

Rapp says she was “able to follow Horton around with a camera the last three years of his life.” And she says their lifelong friendship “allowed me to capture a much more personal and inside view of his life and work, and also capture the connection between his hometown and his successful body of work in more intimate detail.”

Indeed, the heart of the documentary lies in the footage taken inside a car as Foote travels around Wharton. Foote died in 2009.

Besides the footage from the car, the documentary includes several innovations, including various actors, in black and white, reading short monologues that demonstrate the poetry of Foote’s language.

And as you might expect, various literary, film and theater heavyweights weigh in on Foote’s legacy. They include Bruce Beresford, Edward Allbee, Betty Buckley, Elizabeth Ashley and Richard Linklater.

As the playwright Allbee says, Foote “doesn’t write characters, he writes people.”

Eudora Welty once talked about how she grew up without a TV and that her favorite pastime was riding around in the backseat of a car and listening to her family talk. It trained her to listen, she said. And that was Foote’s experience as a child as well, saying he “soaked it up.”

Various segments of the documentary deal with his greatest works, many of which featured women who were survivors — “the meat and substance” of his tales. That’s certainly the case with “The Midnight Caller” and “The Trip to Bountiful.”

But Foote also had a knack of capturing the troubled spirits of men, most notably in “Tender Mercies” and “One Armed Man.”

In a remarkable moment, Foote looks into Rapp’s camera and says the following: “I’m on the side of those of us who have to struggle in the world and are easily bruised and damaged.”

That’s a wonderful sentiment for tumultuous times of today. And “Horton Foote: The Road to Home” is a balm for the soul.

Festival badge holders will have priority in seating for the Oct. 25 premiere at 1:30 p.m., with Rapp scheduled for a post-screening Q&A. Walk-up tickets will also be available.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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