Maybe we’re lucky “Serena” has taken so long to stumble toward its release (assuming it someday gets one). That let “The World Made Straight” get there first, proving it’s possible to adapt a Ron Rash novel with integrity and without a big budget or famous names.
Director David Burris, a Raleigh native best known as an executive producer of “Survivor,” imbues it with the feeling of The Old North State, from a roadside marker about the real Shelton Laurel Massacre (which figures prominently in the story) to rural cabins that seem to exist out of time. For the stubborn, suspicious and senselessly proud people who live in Rash’s version of Madison County, historical feuds, injustices and passions barely dwindle in impact over decades.
Burris and writer Shane Danielsen open with the massacre, where Confederate soldiers executed presumed Union sympathizers – including old women, a mentally disabled girl and three boys under 18 – in 1863. (As “Cold Mountain” reminded us, kin often fought kin in the North Carolina mountains during the Civil War.)
About 120 years later, mechanic Travis Shelton (Jeremy Irvine) drifts through life in the county once called Bloody Madison, barely tolerated by his angry father and worn-out mother. When his dad expels him from the house, partly for selling marijuana plants to a drug dealer named Leonard (Noah Wyle), he moves in with Leonard and his idle, pill-addicted lover Dena (Minka Kelly).
Leonard, a former high school teacher unjustly kicked out of a school system up north, has drifted back to his home county. He detects a brain under Travis’ sullen, monosyllabic exterior when the kid takes an interest in history, specifically the annals of his own doomed ancestors. So Leonard coaches Travis toward a G.E.D., all the while realizing that a hidden secret of his own and a bigger drug lord’s intervention may ruin everyone’s future.
Some of the film’s authenticity has been borrowed. The British Irvine, young star of Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” captures the accent and attitude of a mountain teenager of 40 years ago. So does Australian Adelaide Clemens as his might-be girlfriend, a student nurse.
Yet much of the Carolina essence comes from natives. Cinematographer Tim Orr makes the mountain region mysterious, sinister and even sordid. Producer Todd Labarowski, co-executive producer Matt Garretson, co-producer Eric Hollenbeck and associate producer Bill Wagenseller are all Tar Heels; by shooting in rural areas outside Asheville, they’ve made the picture convincing from the get-go.
Wyle and Kelly don’t have the same echt-Tar Heel quality, though both suit their characters. So does singer Steve Earle, who has made a late-life conversion to acting (he’ll be 60 next week) and exudes casual menace as the region’s drug king. Haley Joel Osment has a few scenes as Travis’ dim, jovial pot pal. But the real star – as it should be in an adaptation of a Ron Rash novel – is this lovely, remote, still-troubled section of Appalachia.