Grade:  B-
Drama
Rated G

Coming-of-age juvenile novels, especially ones documenting life below the poverty line, have spawned an awful lot of films. Where the Lilies Bloomis part of that informal tradition, adapted for the big screen in 1974 after the success of another poor sharecropper story, Sounder (1972).

Where the Lilies Bloom is based on a book by Vera and Bill Cleaver and tells the story of a dirt-poor family living pretty much off the grid in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. The mother of the family, still known in the area as the best root and herb doctor there ever was, died four years before the action of this film begins, and the father has that telltale cough and the kind of “spells” that suggest poor Roy Luther (Vance Howard), isn’t far behind.

That puts the focus on the children—in particular, on the second oldest daughter, Mary Call (Julie Gholson), because the oldest is a bit of a dreamer like her father and not the take-charge doer that their mother had been. With the father more and more out of the picture, Mary Call takes on the responsibility of leading the family . . . at the age of 14. That includes following her father’s wish that she keep neighbor Kiser Pease (Harry Dean Stanton) away from her older sister Devola, because Kiser is living in the family’s old house that he got “legal like” by paying the taxes that Roy had allowed to lapse—presumably because of grief following the death of his wife. Although Kiser is a persistent suitor, Mary Call is a bulldog that won’t let him near the place, even though he legally owns the sharecropper’s shack they now call home. Mary Call also has to raise younger brother Romey (Matthew Burril) and baby sister Ima Dean (Helen Harmon).

The story is narrated from Mary Call’s point of view, and like her more famous rural counterpart, John Boy Walton, she is good at writing and encouraged by a teacher to make something “more” of herself by leaving the hill country. But that’s the future. Mary Call is more concerned with the present. To earn a living, the children trudge up the mountain as generations of Luthers before them had done, pulling and pushing their wagon. Using their mother’s notebook as a guide, they pick all sorts of mountain herbs and roots to sell to the local pharmacist in a town far from their shack. And the focus of this film is as much on the family’s daily lifestyle as it is on plot.

Where the Lilies Bloom will be released on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time on July 19, and a number of things stand out. First, there’s the cinéma vérité look of the film, which was shot in largely in Watauga County using children from local schools and other locals as actors. Attention to detail and location filming make this story feel like part of America’s folk history, a museum diorama come to life. Gholson, a native North Carolinian, beat out 600+ other locals to win the part. It would be Gholson’s only film, and the fact that we haven’t seen her in anything else adds to the sense of realism.

But Stanton (Alien, Repo Man) will be familiar to viewers. So will the actress who plays the oldest sister, because Jan Smithers, who sings in this film, played the part of Bailey Quarters on the hit TV sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, which ran from 1978-82. And speaking of television, the soundtrack features bluegrass music from Earl Scruggs, of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys fame. Just two years before this film was released, Scruggs was the subject of a TV documentary that featured performances by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and The Byrds, and Scruggs also appeared earlier in three episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies TV series. His upbeat banjo music really adds to the Americana feel of the film, though it does tend to clash with the overly somber and melodramatic title song and additional number by Barbara Mauritz.

So how does the film play today?  I’m betting that initially young family members will find it fascinating to see how children from another time, place and economic level once lived, but from a dramatic standpoint there comes a time when any satisfaction derived from observation and comparative discovery is muted by a sense of sameness as the film’s central action continues, rather than builds in intensity. Despite that second-act sag, the film picks up again and ends strong. And Mary Call is a strong character that should appeal as an inspirational role model. Where the Lilies Bloom is a solid story about the human spirit and the positive values of hard work, persistence, responsibility, determination, and, ultimately, survival.

Where the Lilies Bloom has a bit more grain—especially in panoramic long shots—than a generation of high-definition viewers are used to, but overall Kino Lorber provides film lovers with a nice transfer from a brand new 2K master and also features a decent audio commentary by film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer. 

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  97 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Studio/Distributor:  Kino Lorber
Bonus features:  C+
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Trailer
Rated G

Language:  1/10—Some colorful expressions that sound like swearwords, but aren’t

Sex:  0/10—None at all

Violence:  1/10—a wild ride that results in some damage, a threat, a character that’s seriously injured, and some bullying, but that’s about it

Adult situations:  0/10—Nothing here either, though Mary Call is elevated prematurely into adulthood

Takeaway:  Gholson earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, but afterwards walked away from the movie business in order to become a nurse—which is totally something her character would have done

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