Lili Taylor plays townie Evie Decker, who will cut her forehead with a piece of glass in an apparently not-so-fanatic appreciation for singer/songwriter Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce).

By Steven G. Kellman

Lili Taylor wears her heart on her forehead in 'A Slipping Down Life'

"Ye must be born again," insists a sign on the road in Pulqua, North Carolina. Evie Decker, whose mother died during her only child's delivery, seems hardly to have been born the first time around. "I could disappear and no one would notice," complains Evie, who lives with her taciturn widower father and works, in a rabbit costume, at a small, unamusing amusement park.

Mr. Decker (Bower) spends his spare time monitoring life beyond Pulqua through his short-wave radio: "There's too much Spanish in the world," he concludes. His daughter becomes obsessed with a local singer-songwriter who calls himself Drumstrings Casey (Pearce). She comes to believe that his cryptic lyrics speak directly and uniquely to her. In the women's room of a club where Drumstrings is performing, Evie takes a shard of glass and carves "YESAC" into her forehead. Because she is using the mirror, Drumstrings' last name is imprinted backwards on her skin.

Evie Decker is a natural addition to Lili Taylor's impressive repertoire of characters who are plain, shy, and at least a little bonkers: see Dogfight, Household Saints, I Shot Andy Warhol, and Casa de los Babys.

When Evie is released from the hospital, she defends etching a stranger's name backwards into her brow as the sole impulsive action in a sedate life: "I believe this might be the best thing I've ever done." What she has done is drawn the curiosity of Drumstrings, a self-centered musician who considers himself a star, superior to the small-town origins he is sure he will soon transcend. Precisely because she is unlike any of the groupies who throw themselves at him, Drumstrings falls for Evie. It is debatable whether that is a shrewd career move.

A Slipping Down Life

Dir. Toni Kalem; writ. Toni Kalem, based on the novel by Anne Tyler; feat. Lili Taylor, Guy Pearce, John Hawkes, Sara Rue, Irma P. Hall, Tom Bower, Faye-Jean Lindsay (R)
Languorously plotted, A Slipping Down Life is a study of two characters and one odd romance. The skill with which Taylor and Pearce inhabit their roles compensates for some of the predictable sentimentality of the story. In the interactions between Drumstrings, whose enigmatic lyrics make him a would-be rock prophet in the mode of Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen, and Evie, who understands and inspires him, it is also an allegory of sorts of the relationship between artist and public. "You need to get your music out to people who appreciate it," says Evie, the only one in Pulqua who seems to get it. Evie both arouses and reduces Drumstring's urge to make a mark in the larger world.

Toni Kalem's film has itself tarried on its way into the larger world. First screened at Sundance in 1999, it is only now being released theatrically. It is a delayed adaptation of Anne Tyler's third novel, which was published in 1970. Tyler's best-known novels are set in Baltimore, but she, like Evie and Drumstrings, grew up in North Carolina.

This film version of A Slipping Down Life transforms Evie from an overweight teenager into a scrawny twentysomething, but, while it was shot in Austin and Lockhart, Texas, it reproduces Tyler's rural Tarheel setting of more than 30 years ago. It is a quirky work not likely to be etched in anyone's memory as indelibly as "YESAC" is in Evie's forehead. Yet after four years on the shelf, it deserves to be born again. •