“Putting love into words is like putting rose petals into a wood chipper.”
This broad, even silly comedy with overtones of magical reality and romance is a deceptively simple story from first-time feature director Nick Wernham. It uses a fantastical situation, that of a man disappearing into what seems to be a tunnel into another dimension, as the focus for a story about the complications of love and, as the director describes it, about the growth necessary before a person is ready to love.
The film opens with a series of carefully centred shots displaying scenes around the little town of Spot Valley. The images go a little beyond merely pretty: the site is established as almost a caricature of idealised small-town America, a cross between a picture postcard and a setting in a Disney movie. It is almost too nice to be real, which is a concept that sets the tone for the film.
From here, we move on to one of the town’s favourite inhabitants: Lucy Sherrington, a schoolteacher. Like the town, Lucy is almost too nice to be real. She is pretty, charming, polite, adored by her students and colleagues, and popular with the townspeople. She is also sought after by half the young men in town, who vie for her attention with a consistency that falls just short of stalking. Lucy very kindly but firmly puts them off, and appears to be weary of the constant attention.
It turns out that Lucy is having a secret flirtation with a married man named Clint. They arrange a first rendezvous one evening, and meet at Lucy’s home. At this point, the defining event of the film takes place: as Clint pressures Lucy to admit to stronger feelings than she really shares, a large hole suddenly opens up in the living room floor, and Clint falls into it. This is meant to be a surreal occurrence, but comically so. The hole resembles the dark, perfectly round holes that were common traps for cartoon characters, except that the hole in Lucy’s house seems to inhabit its own dimension, with no visible underside (as is quickly established), and Clint reports that he is floating in a mysterious but comfortable blackness.What follows this inexplicable event is a typical screwball comedy with a surreal edge. Practical concerns demand attention, as Lucy scrambles to hide her floor situation after Clint is reported missing. A mysterious stranger named Rydell turns up looking for Clint on behalf of his gambling creditors, and the wildly inept local police suspect kidnaping.
In the course of all this, Spot Valley is revealed as not quite as peaceful and perfect as it seems, the various marriages and relationships of its citizens not as happy as they appear on the surface, and Lucy recognises that she, herself is far from the ideal woman her neighbours and suitors believe her to be. Rather predictably, Lucy forms a grudging friendship with Rydell, who works for his thuggish gangster family but longs to leave that life behind. This draws out Lucy’s own impatience to break through her cloyingly sweet persona and be her true self.
Rydell is arrested by the hyperbolic Sheriff Howard, an amusing character given to inappropriately proclaiming “The Law has arrived!” or “Reach for the sky!” Eventually the entire town becomes aware of Clint’s situation, and therefore of his assignation with Lucy. The existence of the mysterious hole is taken more or less in stride, questioned only in passing, and awkwardly but eloquently commented on by über-nerdy science teacher Vernon, who serves as the town philosopher.The story culminates in a public gathering, another parody of perfect small-town life, in which apologies and explanations are given, and long-guarded secrets revealed, before a backdrop of folksy rural fair activities. The magical hole is seen to have intervened and put an end to chronic deceit, illusion, and lack of self-awareness. The town is rallied in the manner of wartime volunteers, and together they contrive to remove Clint from his impossible confinement. The film concludes with the suggestion of a possible happy ending for Lucy, provided she can learn to accept herself as she is.
No single explanation of the hole is ever attempted, apart from its function as a literary symbol and a source of goofy humour; however, the film both begins and ends with Lucy standing at the site of her favourite walk, which comes to the edge of a steep cliff overlooking an enormous crater in the earth – a natural, rather than a mythical hole, and clearly one she hesitates to deal with. She and Rydell confront each other at the brink of the crater more than once. We are left to interpret that as we like.
No Stranger Than Love tries for sincerity in spite of its unapologetic silliness; the strangeness of the central event and the cartoonish quality of the characters masks a story that is, at its heart, realistic. It can be enjoyed at both levels at once: as a love story with a message, and as a lightweight, ridiculous comedy.