Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine was a hot literary property a decade ago, but it’s easy to see why the movie adaptation ultimately became the responsibility of I.R.S., which thus far has specialized in low-budget, halfway-there projects. Incest, poaching, retardation, and spousal rape are but some of the features of this backwoods drama, in which actress-turned-director Jennifer Warren attempts to demonstrate the Beans’ essential humanity even though she doesn’t quite seem to believe in it herself.
The Beans is narrated by Earleen, who isn’t one. She lives next door to the family’s overpopulated log cabin, and her house, in all its lower-middle-class splendor, has a picture window through which she can view the exploits of her neighbors: hard-drinking Bean patriarch Reuben (aristocratic Dutch actor Rutger Hauer in a bid to demonstrate his versatility), his common-law wife Roberta (the improbably supermodelish Kelly Lynch), and hunky, stuttering Beal (Amongst Friends‘ Patrick McGaw), who’s not clear on exactly who his parents are. After the film establishes Earleen’s voyeurism and the Beans’ voyeurability, Reuben is imprisoned for a poaching incident that escalates into an attack on a police officer, and Earleen grows up (into Martha Plimpton) and gets pregnant. Her snobbish, strait-laced father is shocked, but it’s not until six years later that he’s outraged: when the father of Earleen’s baby makes an honest woman of her, and he turns out to be Beal Bean.
The Beans demonstrate their devotion to living by pulling Earleen out of a funk after her grandmother dies, and Earleen and Roberta become friends. Beal, however, lets his gentle side be overwhelmed by poverty, resentment, and drink. He turns his gun on a sign advertising vacation homes for well-to-do tourists—the unseen villains of the piece—and, like Reuben, comes out the worse for a confrontation with the authorities. Since Roberta and her many children have already abandoned the cabin for a respectable (and presumably dull) marriage to a local merchant, this leaves Earleen and her offspring alone—until Reuben comes home from jail.
Life goes on, in other words, and the Beans embody both the indomitability and the unruliness of the life force. That unruliness, however, is less appealing than Chute and perhaps Warren think it is. For the novelist, who says she abandoned her “sheltered” middle-class life to marry a factory worker at 16, Earleen is presumably a semiautobiographical character. If the alternately well-meaning and brutish Beal is the best account Chute can offer of the appeal of the brooding working-class male, though, The Beans‘ awareness has advanced little beyond that of a 16-year-old.
I haven’t read Chute’s novel, but can only imagine that her tale works somewhat better on the page. Developments that seem rushed in the film, like Earleen and Beal’s growing estrangement, could develop more gradually, while the lurid aspects of Beandom would necessarily be less graphic. If nothing else, the novel has the advantage of soundlessness: Peter Manning Robinson’s pseudo-Appalachian musical theme is as banal and ubiquitous as a TV-commercial jingle. It alone contributes mightily to the film’s inability to sustain a credible tone.