“The Dry Land” explores soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder
BY ROBERT W. WELKOS
PARK CITY, Utah–The world has come to know and love actress America Ferrera as Betty Suarez, the dependably sweet and homely worker at a high fashion magazine surrounded by incredibly thin and gorgeous models in the hit ABC series “Ugly Betty.” But another side of the performer was on display here this week at the Sundance Film Festival in an emotionally-charged drama called “The Dry Land” about soldiers returning from war in Iraq suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the toil it takes on their families.
The film, which Ferrera executive produced and co-stars in, is as much about the wives and girlfriends of the suffering soldiers who must contend with the violent outbursts and inner turmoil of their spouses and boyfriends returning from combat.
“Although the film paints a grim picture of war’s toil on soldiers’ psyches, Ferrera said the film received the full support of the U.S. military, which is still grappling with how best to deal with the emotionally crippled veterans once they return from combat.
The film stars Ryan O’Nan as James, who has trouble reintegrating himself into his small hometown in west Texas. Ferrera plays his wife, who although she loves him deeply, has difficulty dealing with his mood swings and outbursts of violence. Jason Ritter plays his childhood friend, who doesn’t completely understand what James is going through. Melissa Leo plays James’ ill mother while Wilmer Valerrama plays one of James’ wartime buddies who also is dealing with emotional problems stemming from combat but masks it with humor.
“The movie doesn’t paint the prettiest picture of being at war in the Army but (the Pentagon) gave us their support nonetheless and their involvement helped create an authentic world–just down to what (James) would wear when he landed (back in the U.S.)…,” Ferrera said. “In my role, I had access to interview women who had husbands who returned from the war with PTSD. Because of the support from the Army, they handed us the numbers and said here is a woman who is willing to talk to you. They opened up and shared their stories.” O’Nan and Valerrama were also allowed to train with National Guard troops.
“I think the ultimate goal of the film is the message of hope,” she added. “It goes to a really dark place.”
The film takes James to the brink of suicide. Ferrera said there were people in their research Q&A’s who were glad that James doesn’t take that step. While there have been numerous soldiers in recent years who returned home and either committed suicide or murdered their wives, the filmmakers felt it would have taken the movie to a place they didn’t want to go.
“A woman said her father did kill himself and in that moment she wanted nothing more than for James not to,” Ferrera said. “Because we don’t know what (James’) future is. I think it’s incredibly important for the film to be one that had a message of hope. The last thing these men and their families who are coming home need is that that is their fate.”
“When I interviewed the wives, time and time again, I heard their yearning, their struggle, what they were dealing with when their husbands were at war…They are in constant fear. When you go to war, you know if you are safe and when you are not. When you are sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring you don’t know at any given point what is going on–are they safe are they not. One woman said to me, ‘How are you doing? How are you?'”
O’Nan said everyone they interviewed talked about this perception of “what are they going to be like when they come home.”
“One of the relationships in the film that is fascinating is with Jason Ritter, because he plays my best friend, my childhood friend, my best friend that I grew up with…,” he said. “All these little inside jokes that weave you together are totally severed and cracked and you can’t explain why? I can understand that curiosity if you kill somebody…Before you left, you can tell your best friend everything and anything. But when you come back, it;s like they know they would never understand the answer totally.”
The film was written and directed by Ryan Piers Williams, Ferrera’s boyfriend of 4-1/2 years. As he conducted his research, he said: “I started to see that when a soldier goes to war, it’s not just him, it’s his whole family that goes to war and that affects every single person.”
Williams said what he hopes to achieve in the film is how the war affects not only James, but his wife and mother and friends.
“I actually think the families and other relationships in the movie, the way they see James influences the way we see James…,” he added. “It’s them watching him and watching their reactions. That’s where we see how much he has changed….I hope when people watch it they can relate to it even if they haven’t had a family member go to war.”
He said that as a nation, America is still waiting to see what happens as more and more military men and women return from combat. That’s one reason there is no tidy ending to the movie. “I also believe that I wanted to instill hope that there is life after this experience and there may be some really dark times for soldiers and their families but ultimately there is always hope. I would hate to have (the film) tied up in a nice little bow because that’s not what is happening now.”