Picture a pretty but world-weary single woman and her teenage daughter, both with no fixed address. Mom hooks up with one jerk after another; when things get too dicey to stay at one such guy's place, she and the girl live in their beat-up car. The pattern continues until it doesn't, "I love you"s are exchanged, and the pair drive off ... OK, it's just down a road, not into the sunset, but still.
Those aren't spoilers so much as a warning that Katie Holmes takes some shortcuts in her unremarkable directorial debut, "All We Had." (Check out her glamour shot on the film's one-sheet, even though her character, Rita, is introduced with a face that's either bruised or just perpetually dirty. Hard to tell.)
Adapted by the relatively green Josh Boone ("Stuck in Love") and newbie scripter Jill Killington from Annie Weatherwax's first novel, the film opens with 14-year-old Ruthie (Stefania Owen, "Coming Through the Rye") telling Rita that it's time for them to vacate the latest creep's house. "We did what we always did," Ruthie says in a voiceover. "We took what we could and ran."
It turns out that Ruthie does a lot of taking, having become skilled at pocketing necessities from convenience stores, while Rita's in charge of the running, at least until her car breaks down -- just after they'd dined-and-dashed. The previous time their method of escape needed fixing, not more than 10 minutes earlier in the movie, Rita tried to prostitute herself for a deal on a new muffler; this time she takes Ruthie back inside the greasy spoon and apologizes until the owner, Marty (Richard Kind), offers them both jobs, but not before transgender waitress Pam (Eve Lindley, "Mr. Robot"), scolds them about their theft, citing Marty's bad heart. "You could have killed him!" she says.
That's just one of the script's many laughable lines, which include heavy metaphors ("Chess is like life!"), platitudes ("It's going to be OK!"), and spontaneous speechifying, such as this gem that Ruthie unleashes on Marty: "Mister, superheroes don't fly or look like Jesus. They drive broken-down cars. They take their kids with them no matter where they go or how bad things get. And sometimes, they make mistakes, just like anyone else." I don't know if that's directly from the novel, but if it is, Weatherwax's way with words is more E L James than J.K. Rowling.
Though Rita is convinced that she'll always lead a "piece of s--- life," she seems awfully charmed in the film. Steals? Gets a job. Needs a house? Dates a real estate agent. Has bad teeth? Meets a dentist. Pam follows Marty's lead and immediately warms up to the mother and daughter, allowing them to crash in her mobile home until they can get back on their feet.
Every plot turn plays as either a little too convenient, too uncharacteristic, or too undercooked, such as Rita's implied alcoholism. And the passage of time often seems skewed, such as when Ruthie is suspended from school for three days but then says, "When I got back to school, everything had changed. And, I realized, so had I."
Despite the terrible script, the performances in "All We Had" are serviceable. Holmes is nearly as tweaky as she was in this year's "Touched With Fire," Owen manages to say her lines with a straight face, and Kind and Lindley are believably caring. (You may notice Judy Greer listed among the cast, but she appears in only a single scene. How long is it going to take for Hollywood to move her to center stage?)
Holmes does eke out a few affecting scenes before the film's abrupt end, including one in which Rita comforts the often-bullied Pam and shares the story of her own assault. Ultimately, though, "All We Had" is exactly the kind of movie of which people say, "Oh well, its heart is in the right place." A clichéd comment on a clichéd film: what could be more apt?