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‘Accidental Texan’ Review: Amiably Old-Fashioned Dramedy Showcases Appealing Performance by Thomas Haden Church

The next time you hear someone complain that they sure don’t make them like they used to, point them in the direction of “Accidental Texan,” an unapologetically old-fashioned feel-good dramedy that, with a few minor tweaks, could pass as a newly rediscovered family-friendly feature from the mid-1970s. Back then, the lead roles probably would have been filled by the likes of, say, Brian Keith and Kurt Russell. Here, Thomas Haden Church (“Sideways”) and Rudy Pankow (Netflix’s “Outer Banks”) do the honors, and they’re at the top of their game, along with supporting players Bruce Dern and Carrie-Anne Moss. Undemandingly entertaining, director Mark Bristol’s well-crafted indie can be savored as a heaping helping of palate-cleansing sherbet, best enjoyed between viewings of bigger and louder but by no means better movies. And yes, that’s meant as a compliment.

Things begin with a bang — several bangs, to be entirely accurate — when twentysomething Harvard dropout and budding actor Erwin Vandeveer (Pankow) turns his first big break into a total disaster by failing to silence his cellphone before a dramatic movie scene, thereby triggering explosions of multiple squibs meant to indicate his being on the wrong end of gunplay. Instantly unemployed, he drives away from the New Orleans set and heads back to L.A., all the while avoiding calls from his father — who strongly disapproves of his son’s career move — and seriously questioning his future in showbiz.

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Naturally, his car breaks down long before he reaches his destination, so he’s stranded in the small Texas town of Buffalo Gap. He lacks the wherewithal to pay for repairs, and so, just as naturally, he relies on the kindness of strangers. First, he’s lent a sympathetic ear by Faye (Moss), the friendly owner of a local diner. Next, and arguably more important, he meets Merle (Church), a veteran roughneck who proudly proclaims by way of introduction, “I punch holes in the earth like a badass.”

Trouble is, Merle’s oil-drilling outfit has been punching a lot of holes in the wrong places lately, and he’s on the verge of bankruptcy. In order to stave off foreclosure by a mean old banker, he needs to beef up his crew with someone who’s a good enough actor to pass as a seasoned landman, in order to assure his creditors that he’s on the verge of striking black gold, and brainy enough to secure info about potentially oil-rich sites. In short, Merle figures that “with your Harvard smarts and my horse sense,” he and Erwin can beat the clock and end their respective losing streaks. Lacking any other employment opportunities, Erwin reluctantly accepts the offer.

Church and Pankow persuasively develop an amusing give-and-take, especially whenever their characters are pulling something over on easily deceived adversaries, and are just as engaging as they ease into more serious interplay while discussing unpleasant elements of their respective pasts. (Merle lost his son in an auto mishap years earlier; Erwin frets about disappointing his tradition-minded father by leaving Harvard for Hollywood.) Church, a native Texan with real-life oilfield experience and his very own ranch in the Lone Star State, is especially convincing and compelling as he fully commits to his role, neatly balancing the wisdom and sadness that comes from years of chasing dreams that only sporadically come to fruition, and eloquently expressing a well-nigh inexhaustible drive that stops just short of desperation. And if he sometimes crosses that line, well, that’s probably just what you might expect Merle to do in his current situation.

Pankow evolves from fish-out-of-water skeptic to invaluably involved collaborator and, when the need arises, spirit-lifting cheerleader, without ever missing a beat. It’s mildly surprising that Erwin isn’t allowed a romantic interest of some sort in scripter/producer Julie B. Denny’s fine adaptation of Cole Thompson’s novel “Chocolate Lizards” (as the movie originally was titled during its festival run). To a certain degree, Merle is luckier — he strikes low-key sparks of attraction with Faye, though they never get around to serious smooching or anything like that. (Not that such a development would strain credibility, you understand — because, really, what reasonably sentient straight male could resist Moss’ mature allure?)

Dern drops by now and then to spike the mix with a welcome dose of vinegar as Scheermeyer, a crusty rancher who’s grown way past annoyed by people offering to drill on his potentially oil-rich property, and requires considerable swaying to sign on with Merle and Erwin. It’s easily the veteran actor’s best work since the overlooked and underrated 2019 drama “The Artist’s Wife.”

Director Bristol, heretofore best known as an in-demand storyboard artist, evinces a sharply observed and thoroughly uncondescending appreciation for the defining attributes of small-town Texas life while keeping his film as apolitical as possible. (Bankers and big businessmen are bad guys here, but that’s a traditional characterization that crosses party lines.) Appropriately enough, cinematographer Matthew Wise gives the movie a distinctly classical look, further enhancing the impression that “Accidental Texan” is, if not a genuine oldie-but-goodie, the next best thing.

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