For 30 years, the Sundance class of 1992 has been heralded as “the year indie exploded.” Directors with small budgets and strange, previously untold stories were able to connect with their audiences in a way that Hollywood films just weren’t. Some still widely discussed highlights from Sundance ‘92 include a video store clerk by the name of Quentin Tarantino rocking the scene with his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, French directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s delightfully, rhythmically freaky Delicatessen and established indie darling Jim Jarmusch’s taxi cab anthology Night on Earth. However, the film that best encapsulates the idiosyncratic energy of ‘92 Sundance is also one of the most overlooked today: writer/director Allison Anders’ sophomore feature Gas Food Lodging. Gas Food Lodging subverts the “family drama” genre and experiments with a multi-POV narrative structure in order to tell the story of a non-traditional working class household as they navigate familial connection (or lack thereof), sexuality and human attachment in a Laramie, New Mexico trailer park.
Nora (Brooke Adams), an overworked, underpaid truck stop waitress, and her daughters Trudi (Ione Skye) and Shade (Fairuza Balk) live more like roommates than a traditional family, which both daughters misguidedly blame their mother for. Trampy bad girl Trudi and her mother don’t really talk, except to shout at each other, thanks to Trudi’s habits of skipping school and sleeping around. Soft-spoken matinee junkie Shade doesn’t talk much at all; after spending too much time watching Spanish dramas at her local cinema, Shade’s misplaced longing for her father causes her to concoct a well-intentioned but foolishly ill-fated solution to solve her dysfunctional family’s problem. She’ll find a man for her mother. Nora just wants to get by with a little bit of peace and quiet, if that’s not too much to ask, goddammit.
Inspired by Anders’ own experiences and by Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Scorsese and Anders would later work together on Grace of My Heart), Anders made Gas Food Lodging because she was fed up with the lack of family drama films surrounding working class single mothers.
“Liberal folks are used to seeing their own point of view prevail in every film they see, especially about working class people. They want to hear about ‘stay in school,’ when in reality there is no school for these kids. They want to see ‘their’ choices available to working class people, but in reality they are not, and very few people in this country are doing anything about it,” Anders told Bomb Magazine.
Gas Food Lodging is a seminal working class feminist text because of its bleak, honest take on the exhausting, disappointing and often humiliating realities of being poor and a woman in America, which Anders knew all too well. Nora works long hours for a small paycheck, with even smaller hopes that her daughters will be able to do much better financially. After one of the most iconic sex scenes to ever take place in a cave, Trudi confesses to her boyfriend Dank (Robert Knepper, doing a terrible British accent) that she acts out sexually because of a violent assault in her childhood, something she was never previously able to tell anyone; spoiler alert, if you’re thinking Trudi and Dank’s story ends with a warm embrace and a smiling family photo, then prepare for heartbreak. There are no lessons to be learned here, no tearful revelations about the importance of sisterhood, and not even a single moment of girlbossery, as one might find in the Hollywood version. In their place, as in life, are occasional bittersweet moments, such as Trudi helping Shade with an ill-advised makeover, or Nora putting her scarf around Trudi’s neck as Trudi boards a bus to Dallas. “You just make me so mad sometimes,” Nora sighs as her daughter skips town, possibly forever.
All three of our protagonists are unlikeable and deeply flawed. Nora repeatedly fails to show her daughters warmth or understanding in moments of distress. Trudi’s casually blatant racism causes Shade’s friend Javier (Jacob Vargas) to quit his job as a busboy, while Shade’s cowardice prevents her from standing up for him. The film would have failed without Balk and Skye’s ability to find such truth in Shade’s painful shyness and Trudi’s wounded defiance; in particular, Balk’s pre-The Craft, Independent Spirit award-winning performance stands out in its effortless portrait of legitimate hope in the face of constant rejection and disappointment—all in a way that could easily feel cloying in the hands of a less talented actor.
Another way Anders rebelled against established Hollywood storytelling conventions in Gas Food Lodging was through her use of Nora, Trudi and Shade’s perspectives, instead of choosing to focus on just one character. This decision led to a more meandering, rougher tone, which occasionally stumbles. Friends and lovers enter and exit the women’s lives without much fanfare, plans are made and abandoned. Rather than streamlining her ideas into a classic structure with one protagonist’s goals in mind, Anders explores each of their inner lives. Shade’s solo trips to the movies, Trudi’s sexual encounters, Nora crying alone in the car—these moments may seem trivial, but they provide context when understanding how the women interact with each other.
Many things may have changed in the decades since Gas Food Lodging’s release—They watched satellite TV! Small towns had easily accessible independent film screenings! Look at their silly fashion choices…oh wait, everyone dresses like that nowadays thanks to the incredibly short nature of fashion cycles!—but audiences’ hunger and appreciation for stories outside of the mainstream isn’t one of them. It’s the economic feasibility of making a feature film outside of the studio system and the willingness of major festivals to screen unknown filmmakers that have changed out of favor for the American independent filmmaker, as studios rely more and more heavily on algorithms, reboots, franchises and known names to bring in profits. Like many of her Sundance ‘92 classmates, Anders radically flouted these industry ideas by forcing more mainstream audiences to confront their own economic biases.
Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.