Young wife Natalie (Shirley Knight) wakes up early one morning, and, without waking her husband, heads over to her parents' house, telling them she is leaving him. They are unsympathetic, so Natalie drives off, heading west, away from New York, unsure of when she will return, or whether she will have the baby she is pregnant with. She is running away, but she eventually has to face the responsibilities she is trying to avoid, in unexpected ways.
A low-key road movie, this was scripted by the director, Francis Ford Coppola, and marked him out as an blossoming new talent of the era, even if the film wasn't seen by too many people at the time. It also gave two future stars their most promising roles, as along the way, Natalie picks up a hitchhiker called Kilgannen (James Caan), an ex-football player who has given up the sport after a serious accident on the field left him brain damaged, and she strikes up a reluctant, motherly relationship with him. Further down the road, she is pulled over by highway patrolman Gordon (Robert Duvall) - a fateful meeting.
Sadly, Shirley Knight didn't go on to seventies stardom like her fellow actors here, despite showing she was more than capable of carrying a film. Natalie's pregnancy has panicked her, and she obviously not ready to start a family, but her guilt at letting down her husband and parents is palpable. The husband is briefly glimpsed, but mostly he is an aggressive, unreasonable voice on the phone as Natalie calls him periodically, letting her low self-esteem get the better of her as she insists she's the one to blame. Knight keeps what could have been an irresponsible character understandable, always letting her confusion show through.
The Rain People looks self-conscious now, an episodic drama set along the highways of America, and the middle-of-nowhere points inbetween. What humour there is is forced, witness the scene where Gordon tells Natalie they'll quickly pay her speeding fine and be out of there in a flash - she starts chuckling: "Flash Gordon!" And the explanation of the title is wincingly pretentious, something about people made of rain who cry themselves away; the fact that this line is delivered by the simple-minded Kilgannen doesn't make it more palatable.
The film is most effective in its more serious sequences, such as the embarrassing bit where Natalie tries to seduce Kilgannen before realising he's backward, or the uncomfortable scene where he shows up at the country house of an old girlfriend looking for a job. Natalie realises that being close to others means taking on their lives too, and so in becoming responsible for Kilgannen she sees echoes in looking after a baby, just as the widowed Gordon represents the emotional ties to her husband. With a great sense of place and time, the story heads towards an affecting, tragic end, but it's unclear how much Natalie has learned about herself, and just how independent she can ever be. Music by Ronald Stein.