“Katie Says Goodbye” is a drama that examines how a patriarchal society relegates economically disadvantaged women into sex work and then punishes them for taking on such work to survive. “Katie Says Goodbye” is also the latest in a long line of dramas in which male writers and directors serve up the physical and psychological destruction of women for the delectation of an audience.
Which version of the film each viewer sees will be a subjective choice, of course, but the fact that the lead character is so utterly guileless and innocent and kindhearted — she’s essentially a smiley face with a “KICK ME” sign taped to her back — makes Katie less a victim of the world and more a victim of first time writer-director Wayne Roberts.
Katie (Olivia Cooke, “Bates Motel”) is an Arizona waitress with dreams of moving to San Francisco to go to beauty school. Saving money is hard, particularly since she has to take care of her mother Tracey (Mireille Enos, “The Catch”), who spends her days in a funk and her nights brazenly having an affair with the married man who lives in the next trailer. Double shifts at the truck stop under the watchful eye of boss and pal Maybelle (Mary Steenburgen) can only take her so far, after all, so she augments her income by having sex for money with various men in town, along with itinerant trucker Bear (Jim Belushi), who stops in regularly for “lunch breaks.”
The prostitution side-gig never seems to burst Katie’s wide-eyed bubble of naïveté — this is the sort of movie where all of her johns are nice, until they’re not — and one day she falls in girlish love with Bruno (Christopher Abbott, “Girls”), an ex-con mechanic who doesn’t talk a whole lot. Once they’ve started dating, of course, Bruno’s co-workers can’t help telling him about Katie’s reputation around town, and everything goes south from there.
Roberts takes Katie’s inherent sweetness so far that not even Cooke’s heartfelt performance can keep this character seeming remotely realistic; as her life falls apart, she allows other people to exploit and demean her rather than speak up for herself, and once our empathy slips away, “Katie Says Goodbye” is reduced to a horror show of female suffering rather than a human drama or institutional indictment.
The ensemble does fine work, at least: Abbott taps into both the humanity and the brutishness of this troubled character, and Steenburgen radiates a brand of human warmth and kindness that’s far more believable than the cloud of hearts and flowers that Roberts puts around his titular heroine. Still, Cooke has many lovely moments throughout, particularly her scenes with Belushi, who’s surprisingly sensitive here.
Cinematographer Paula Huidobro (“Tallulah”) serves up the usual vast expanses of dusty nothing that we always get in movies set in the Southwest, although she and Roberts avoid cliché by presenting one of the big screen’s tidier trailer parks; whatever location scout found the vintage truck stop where Katie and Maybelle work deserves commendation, as well.
“Katie Says Goodbye” no doubt thinks it has its heart in the right place, but for me, it just felt like another opportunity to see a young woman get burned at the stake of ignorance, violence and public opinion. There are fascinating stories to be told there, but not when the burning serves as the main draw.