“Community is a major part of the town of Belleville, and that sense of community shines in the film.”
by Bethany Rose
A stranger named Neila mysteriously turns up around Belleville farmer Willie’s home. Neila’s curious questions, savant-like abilities, and unusual apparel add to his otherworldly persona. While Neila’s persona at first comes off as peculiar, he also displays a friendly vibe, making friends almost everywhere he goes, but his personality rubs one resident, Arlene, the wrong way.
As Neila continues to forge connections with the residents of Belleville, he slowly chips away the hardened exterior of Willie, who has spent years being reclusive, letting his home fall to pieces around him. But could the leery Arlene cause problems in the blooming friendship? And why did Neila mysteriously appear on Willie’s farm in Belleville? These questions move the plot forward and create characters and incidents that are not soon to be forgotten.
Belleville, a real city in Southern Illinois, doesn’t merely serve as the name and setting of the film. The city itself, along with some of the surrounding communities, is really one of the film’s main characters. Ted Trent, the actor who plays the enigmatic Neila, is from Belleville, and it is clear that the city and its denizens are a major part of the story.
There are some fantastic performances in the film. Cooper Shaw, who plays Arlene, was recently named Best Supporting Actress at the American Movie Awards for her work in this film. Ted Trent found a way to create a complex character who is quirky, confused, hurting, and awestruck, many times all at once, without chewing the scenery. The film is shot partially as a documentary, featuring interviews from area residents discussing their thoughts about Neila and providing some insight into Willie. These interviews feel organic, and much of that is owed to cast improvisation, along with the superb writing and directing of Dan Steadman.
As a lifelong resident of the Midwest myself, growing up just minutes away from Belleville, I found the film a refreshing look at the region. Community is a major part of the town of Belleville, and that sense of community shines in the film. The character of Arlene shows that sometimes it is difficult to accept something or someone new, that change of any kind can be difficult, but the overwhelming responses of kindness and understanding that the residents show Neila capture the essences of many of this area’s towns.
Residents of the Metro-East area will delight in the landmarks featured in the film, from Belleville’s downtown stores and sights, to local farms and restaurants, the scenery will surely bring smiles to local audiences. References to this area’s culture and perceptions will also capture attention. In an early conversation in the film, Willie tries to find out more about his uninvited guest, including where he is from. When Neila says he is from farther away than Belleville, Willie assumes that means St. Louis. This line is sure to have citizens of the Metro East knowingly nodding and smiling.
But Belleville is not only a movie made for citizens of its featured communities, nor is it only a movie for the Midwest. Belleville is a film for audiences who have felt like an outsider, or felt the basic need for human compassion. It is a movie that has heart, and will move audiences to laugh, cry and ponder our connections to each other.
Bethany Rose covered the Red Carpet event of Belleville. Read the article and see the photos by clicking here.