Highway to Dwell: Tollbooth (1994)

Dave checks into the Florida village of Islamorada to watch Fairuza Balk and Lenny von Dohlen go full-on quirky.

Quirky indie films were very much the doyen of the movie business between 1990 and 1996. With a tendency to weave wry humour through a dramatic narrative, and usually set against the backdrop of an unorthodox location, the results were often schizophrenic. TOLLBOOTH is a picture that epitomises their inconsistencies, echoing the same traits and shortcomings that you can find in Jack Baran’s likable Destiny Turns on the Radio (1995) and Alexandre Rockwell’s patchy Somebody to Love (1994).

In Tollbooth, Belgian writer-director Salome Breziner uses the eye-catching setting of Islamorada [1], centring her film around the mundane existence of Jack (Lenny von Dohlen): a tollbooth attendant with a fetish for Miami Vice and an aching crush on the gas pumping Doris (Fairuza Balk). Doris’s father walked out on both her and her mother (Louise Fletcher) many years ago, but it’s been her obsession ever since to track down her now mythic, yellow cab-driving patriarch. Jack sees this as an opportunity to win her affection, and he spends his spare time trudging through every taxicab company in the state on Doris’ behalf. However, when he finally comes up trumps, things take a devastating turn for the worst, and he’s forced to call upon the help of Dash Pepper (Will Patton) – an orthopaedic boot-wearing bait and tackle shop owner who happens to be bedding Doris on the sly.

If a ‘90s indie doesn’t have Seymour Cassel in it, does it even exist? Well, thankfully, he’s here in two roles – and if you add James Wilder and William Katt to the already impressive cast, then you have a film that’s hard to dislike. Having said that, von Dohlen’s irritating portrayal of Jack is tantamount to Deputy Andy in Twin Peaks, just without the amiability, and it’s a real sticking point in terms of being able to connect with a character central to the story. Still, Balk is on fine form as always, but it’s the limping Patton who really lights up the screen with his wonderfully complex character.

For all its kooky charm, Tollbooth’s self-conscious idiosyncrasies do become wearying as it nears the end of its excessive running time. Jack’s increasingly eccentric quest sails close to annoying, and the film’s various subplots get a little too tangled, with one or two seemingly overlooked. Breziner’s next project would be more standard fare, and arguably more enjoyable – An Occasional Hell (1996) with Tom Berenger and Kari Wuhrer.

Tollbooth premiered at the Stockholm International Film Festival in November ’94, and even bagged a nomination for Best Picture at MystFest in Carolica, Italy, where it found itself up against mid-’90s gold like Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995). After a trip through the festival circuit, Tollboth hit U.S. video stores in mid-’95 via New Line – though it wouldn’t be seen here in the U.K. for another decade, when it popped up on a double-feature DVD from budget label Boulevard, where it was coupled alongside pitch-black comedy Wilbur Falls (1998).

USA ● 1994 ● Comedy, Drama ● 108mins

Fairuza Balk, Lenny von Dohlen, Will Patton, Seymour Cassel ● Dir./Wri. Salome Breziner

[1] Nowadays, Islamorada is best known for being where acting legend Gene Hackman has chosen to spend his retirement. The small village made the news in 2012 when the then 81-year-old actor was knocked off his bike. Happily, Hackman escaped any serious injury.

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