The strange thing about The Frontier Experience is how it’s really bad with exposition for an educational film. Watching it, you can imagine an accompanying quiz and if the filmmakers do acknowledge the potential test question instead of just ignoring it, they treat the plot point or detail like a secret. I’m sure if I’d watched Frontier Experience is third or fourth grade I’d have gotten a C on the quiz. Though I don’t think I got Cs in third or fourth grade; I wouldn’t have failed, but I wouldn’t have gotten everything. Because it’s often easy to zone out during the film. It’s blandly American exceptionalism with some period specific details and sympathetic characters.
Even if none of the performances are particularly good. Except Phyllis McNeely as the kindly neighbor woman who likes having another woman living around even though it doesn’t end up meaning anything other than the exposition dump. How many women live in a ten mile radius besides McNeely and lead (and director and producer) Loden… A, 3, B, 2, or C, none. But McNeely’s good. In her scene and a quarter.
Frontier doesn’t have any opening titles, at least not with credits, so I wasn’t sure if Loden also directed the short or also wrote the short (in addition to starring in it). I thought it was writing, which seemed to make sense as the directing often sabotages Loden’s performance. Frontier Experience has a (light) handful of artistic ambitions. For example, Loden tries to do a fun footrace thing but doesn’t shoot it well. So it seems like she wouldn’t have directed it, because nothing seems to be in sync. But no, Loden did direct; Joan Micklin Silver wrote the script, which starts a lot better than it finishes. Including with the diary entries Loden’s writing as time moves on. Frontier starts with her moving out to Kansas with her family to homestead. The husband’s Roger Hoffman. He’s a man with dreams, the expository dialogue to convey them, but not the performance to make them interesting. There are a lot of wanting performances in the film. Educational film really does mean “don’t care.”
But until the third act, I kind of assumed Frontier Experience at least wouldn’t choke on the ending. But for the jingoism, it’d be fine. The jingoism ruins it and makes Frontier Experience seem a lot less like an educational film than disinterested propaganda.
Produced and directed by Barbara Loden; written by Joan Micklin Silver; director of photography, Nicholas T. Proferes; edited by Proferes; music by John Duffy; released by the Learning Corporation of America.
Starring Barbara Loden (Delilah Fowler), Roger Hoffman (George Fowler), Tim Petty (Eugene), Sharon O’Donnell (Caroline), Kelly Heft (Alice), John Peirson (Ned), Cecil Friend (John Crawford), Phyllis McNeely (Mrs. Polk), and Leroy Deewall (Mr. Polk).