To anyone coming of age in the 1990s, Alicia Silverstone will always be best remembered for her turn as Cher is Amy Heckerling’s eerily timeless Clueless. However, Silverstone’s role as Tammy in William Robert Carey’s new film Angels in Stardust will give pause to those of us with nostalgic inclinations toward Cher as we first witness Silverstone’s range as an actress, and also as we’re forced to abandon our idealized version of the blooming young actress whom we were introduced to in 1995.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Silverstone, who excitedly declared that she was “really drawn to the idea of playing Tammy.” Ostensibly, Tammy could be considered nearly dead last in the running for mother of the year. With her daughter Vallie Sue (AJ Michalka) and her son Pleasant (Adam Taylor), Tammy lives in a makeshift trailer park that occupies an abandoned drive in theater. The Texas desert that surrounds them only lends itself to the desolation, and the missing S on the sign for the Stardust Drive-In figuratively traps them in a pit of desperation, with each character wriggling and wrangling in one form or another to escape.
In the producer’s notes Tammy is briefly described as neglectful, and Silverstone agrees that it would be “easy to read this role and go ‘She’s an awful mother’” and “how fun and delicious a role that would be for someone.” But there’s something deeper and darker to the character that “would be more interesting for me and make her more compelling.” And while Silverstone admits that “It’s fun to be the character that people hate too,” there is a more inviting challenge in this role insomuch as Tammy “really loved her children.”
With much of the film focusing on Vallie Sue’s attempt to escape the cultivated precedents that moor her to a life of poverty, Tammy’s own plight could easily be overlooked. But she, just like Vallie Sue is trying to escape. And, within the world of Angels in Stardust, escape for women is limited. The dynamic between men and women is a rather cynical on that positions women as the subservient class, relegated to the role of blamed. Each relationship they enter is an attempt to climb the social hierarchy and ultimately emerge from their current status. However, it seems within the world that Carey creates, the result turns out to be pregnancy and further isolation instead of escape and freedom. Tammy’s two children are from two different fathers, and her youngest boy is the son of the, apparently, only good man in all of Stardust. But he is a man she cannot be with because of his Native American decent. He is an outlier in a community of outliers, and he offers Tammy no retribution, solace, or opportunity.
As Silverstone notes, “I saw her trying.” Therefore, “If I take her on a journey where she’s really struggling…between her needs and her children’s needs,” we can understand that “she’s still a bad mom… but she’s really worried about her daughter.” There’s a deep cynicism here, but it’s accurate. Tammy dates religiously, so much so that she’s hardly home, but the film makes it apparent that she’s not promiscuous. At one point she’s tossed from a train because she refuses to partake in a threesome. In truth, she’s searching for marriage that will provide her economic stability and an artery away from the desiccating heart of Stardust.
In all, this shouldn’t justify all of her actions, particularly those that come toward the end of the film in a moment that really elucidates the disjointed and dysfunctional relationships that pervade the families relegated to the trailer park that houses “people who are surviving the best that they can.” But this view of turbulent culture into which they’ve been thrust should help us better understand Tammy’s motives, even if they might feel far removed from our idealized understanding of humanity.
If the name of the dilapidated movie theater is an important overarching symbol Angels in Stardust, then the symbol of the theater itself is just as important. It is simultaneously a source of dreams and a sign of the dreams deferred. The imaginary cowboy that haunts the screen is Vallie Sue’s only mentor. Silverstone points out the sadness in this when she asserts, “this little girl had to talk to herself…she created a mentor in her imagination…kind of what healed her in a way…but also kept her tethered.” Just as there is irony in Vallie Sue’s idolizing of the cowboy that ultimately keeps her close to the place she wishes to leave, there is a double irony inasmuch as the cowboy manifests itself as the idealized symbol of wealth and success that Tammy seeks. It also appears that Tammy’s life has been guided by movies. Foucault once noted that film and television are “reprogramming popular memory which existed but had no way of expressing itself.” If this is the case, then we can also assume that our ideals are reprogrammed to wish for an expect that which we see on the screen.
This programmed idealism is apparent when Tammy ultimately marries and in the way that, as Silverstone reminds us, she ”spent a lot of time speaking in a fancy way, a colorful way.” Tammy speaks in language that defies her current place in life. Her lexicon rejects her future in the trailer park, but her discourse is also comprised of lines that would best be suited to a fairy tale film. Like Vallie Sue, Tammy wants what she’s previously seen and her life is shaped around what she believes to be the filmic version of reality.
In Angels in Stardust, Silverstone reinvents herself and presents a character unfamiliar to the audience introduced to her nearly two decades ago. It seems that Silverstone will continue to evolve, as her new book The Kind Mama hits shelves on April 14. Angels in Stardust opens on February 21.