Shade (Fairuza Balk) lives in a New Mexico trailer park with her older sister Trudi (Ione Skye) and her longsuffering mother Nora (Brooke Adams), who is single since her husband left her when Shade was very young. The girl loves to go to the cinema, specifically the Spanish-language establishment where she watches her favourite Mexican movie star, and it is her adventures playing out on the screen before her, with all the gamut of emotions that entails, that makes Shade's mind up to do something about her mother's lack of a man in her life. Nora is currently too worked up about Trudi's rebellion to worry about finding a romantic partner, but her youngest is optimistic...
Gas, Food Lodging (oddly there's only one comma in the title) was one of the highest profile indies from out of the United States from the nineties to be directed by a woman, in this case Allison Anders. She adapted a novel by Richard Peck to create a very female-centric movie which nevertheless did not lazily fall back on painting the opposite sex as a bunch of no-good wasters, as every character here with more than a few lines were refreshingly three dimensional with good points and bad: you had the impression Anders truly liked them for all their faults and wanted you to appreciate them as well. This was a lot different from many a pat Hollywood drama starring major actresses, however.
A lot of that was down to how it came across as being created by a very exact sensibility who knew precisely what she wanted and was not going to pander to any clichés or stereotypes prevalent in more mainstream efforts. When these three leads bicker and fight it's with a raw, ballistic and caustic anger born of the frustration that their lives are far from within their control and not working out the way they want, therefore feeling a lot more authentic than some mere soap opera translated onto film. It was not slick by any means, but that texture of a story very personal to Anders, not in plot specifics but because she wanted to get this chance just right and more importantly do it her way since she knew what she wanted to say and how to say it.
So if the film grew a little shaky in places, it was Anders' confidence which rescued it from mere amateurism, accompanied by a brace of performances which empathised with their character's predicament. Each of the ladies has boyfriend troubles partly brought upon themselves and partly brought upon them by others, but the heart of the piece is the wayward Trudi's relationship with a visiting, English geologist called Dank (Robert Knepper) who surprises her by being a really nice guy, as opposed to the sort of man she usually attracts given her reputation of being "available". They get to know one another and over the course of one night of passion in the old mine Trudi realises she has found the one for her - and then the days go by and she never hears from him again.
There's a very good reason for that, although we don't find out by the end which simultaneously restores some faith and has us cursing the bad luck which dogs the heroines. Not that they are admirable throughout: even Shade, while sweetnatured, can fly off the handle when it's not really necessary as she does with Javier (Jacob Vargas), the Latino boy she initially has a row with, then gets to like, and before she knows it she's in love too. That recurring scene where one person will act terribly to someone else should make us dislike them, yet Anders was careful after a while to have us understand them, and recognise they were only human, so that can mean our moods don't always take us down the most laudable paths. On the other hand, the worth of actually treating others with a measure of respect was indicated too, not in a heavy-handed manner but growing organically from the drama, leaving an idiosyncratic, sometimes clunky, but always engaging work. The music was from J. Mascis, who has a late on cameo to demonstrate a near-supernatural lack of acting ability.