Faithfully adapted to the screen from writer/director Phillip Irwin Cooper’s one man play of the same name, Counting for Thunder is a charming autobiographical drama that manages to feel emotionally honest and likeable throughout. Even when it becomes clear that the story is being told through rose tinted glasses as a profession of love from the director to his close knit family and former community, it still rings true, despite being a romanticised portrayal of real events.
Heading back from California to his Alabama hometown, failing actor Phillip (played by the writer/director himself) decides to move back in with his family and take care of his mother (Mariette Hartley), who is fighting back against a terminal illness. As he gets reacquainted with his family and assists with his mother’s day-to-day care, he bumps into an old acquaintance with whom he has a tender relationship in secret- and slowly begins to find his own voice to be fully truthful to his family.
Although fleshed out from humble origins as a one man play, Counting for Thunder still feels like a work of theatre. This isn’t a criticism to say that the project feels “stagey”, due to featuring a limited number of settings and extensive dialogue scenes. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that Cooper’s main focus is on crafting believable characters and forging believable inter-character relationships. Better still, there isn’t a priority on distracting monologues, so present in many films adapted from works of theatre, making his film feel comparatively low key when compared to the lineage of films with stage origins.
For a film that deals head-on with the impending death of a loved one and opening up about your sexuality in middle age, it is something of a relief that there are no distracting speeches designed to tug on your heart strings. The theme of grief may return to the fore repeatedly, but it is never treated in a downbeat manner. In coming home to care for his mother, Phillip finds that despite having a career in stasis back in California, spending time with his family and members of the community gives him enough reason to be optimistic about things to come in the face of a grim, impending event.
The family dynamic has been drawn in an endearingly compassionate way, with an emphasis on kitchen sink humour that ensures the film can best be described to British viewers as “Southern-fried Alan Bennett”. The sexuality of the central character isn’t repressed like in the work of that playwright, but it does feel equally sidelined; there isn’t a sense that he is hiding his true identity, or having to come to terms with it, only that he’s modifying himself while around his family.
Despite taking place in Alabama, a red state with very little regard to LGBTQ rights, being gay is refreshingly not treated as an issue. Only Phillip’s dad is depicted as having a significant issue with his son’s sexuality, and the fact he deeply cares about his son overshadows his prejudice. I felt that this was an interesting and especially unusual dynamic to see in a film and I wish it had been explored in greater depth.
This may be a film about a mother and a son (the director even describes it as “Terms of Endearment, but between parent and child”), but their innate understanding of each other’s personal issues ensures that more time spent with the reserved, purposefully closed-off father could have been equally rewarding. The film is emotionally rich as it currently stands, but I was left yearning to discover more about this other unusual relationship merely hinted at. After displaying his talent for autobiographical screenwriting here, I hope this isn’t the last trip Cooper pays to his family, as I could happily spend more time in their company and get to know more about them.