Most great American sitcoms end up at their best around their third or fourth season. Laughs come often just from familiarity with characters and you’re invested enough in their lives to actively desire the best for them. The most amazing thing about Jim Cummings’s Thunder Road is that it achieves the same thing within just 90 minutes. Its character work is so efficient yet so detailed that you feel you know every member of its cast as a friend, and this deep, instant dive into their world makes for one of the year’s most heartfelt, hilarious, and human films.
We first meet moustachioed cop Jim Arnaud (played by Cummings, who also writes and directs in this adaptation of his own short film) as he delivers a eulogy for his mum. It’s an astonishing scene, a 10 minute or so unbroken take of perfectly written and forcefully acted grief and confusion. There’s no visible artifice or attempts to make these feelings more ‘cinematic’, discomfort and desperation emanating from both Jim and his audience, peppered with proper laugh out loud moments. Thunder Road makes its home here, in the overlap between tragedy, absurdity, and hilarity, as Jim’s mum’s death coincides with the end of an acrimonious divorce and the revelation that his nine year old daughter Crystal (Kendal Farr) is struggling at school.
Cummings’s script is laser-focused on the day to day of bereavement and its unhelpful relationship with all other life responsibilities, especially when, like Jim, one has to deal with it on one’s own. He keeps things grounded – the most intense set-pieces of the film are just Jim and his empathetic and stable partner Nate (Nican Robinson) dealing with drunk and disorderly conduct – finding high stakes, big laughs, and overwhelming emotion in the minutiae of life. A meeting with Crystal’s teacher is hugely funny, while a meltdown outside of family court uses a similar energy to a far more tragic effect.
Cummings pinballs between, and artfully mixes, these two feelings throughout the film, before going for pure weepie territory at the end. It lands this with a resounding grace note, movingly sincere as it shows just how much Jim and Crystal have grown. These transformations happen very gradually, almost imperceptibly, but their cumulative weight is clear at this ending, which will have you leaving the cinema beaming.
Written and Directed by Jim Cummings
Starring; Jim Cummings, Kendal Farr, Nican Robinson
Runtime: 92 mins