While many a Hollywood production aims to show us what it's like "over there," and offer a "real" look at war, "The Lucky Ones" looks at the dark side of battle, those coming home -- back to reality and the stark realization that your country has moved on without you.
In this prairie-paced chronicle of three soldiers and the unlikely bond they form, director/co-writer Neil Burger offers an intriguing take on the prism through which we view such heady burdens as war, service, loneliness, love and, most poignantly, loss. His careful and fluid movement between these themes is nothing less than riveting -- and occasionally hilarious.
The soldiers are lucky in that they've survived an army tour of duty. Beyond that, their luck seems to have run out; their destiny is depressingly uncertain. On his third tour, Sgt. T.K. Poole (an astonishing Michael Peña) is the ultimate embodiment of "still waters run deep": logical, practical and ambitious. Perky, upbeat, and delightfully down-home, Pvt. Colee (Rachel McAdams) seems too kind for her own good. In a measured and mesmerizing performance -- a far cry from her over-the-top antics in "Mean Girls" -- McAdams appears at once jovial and terrified. The steady voice of reason is Sgt. Cheever (a quietly powerful Tim Robbins), whose suburban bliss has been obliterated in his absence.
A study in contrast, the three have been wounded and are thrown together by chance on a transatlantic flight. Eager to return to family or some semblance thereof, then sidetracked following a New York City blackout, they wind up sharing a rented minivan for a cross-country road trip.
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Along the way, between every imaginable type of weather, terrain and mishap, they experience the real America: scenic backroads, neighborhood eateries, bars, shops -- each replete with its own local flavors and prejudices. With every stop comes another slice of town folks: a wide spectrum of classes, all with different attitudes toward the military and what they're fighting for. While politics bubbles up throughout, the viewpoints expressed are varied and provocative.
Beyond the emotional scars, the three have nearly nothing in common, and yet en route, tell each other everything. T.K., whose injury impedes his manly "performance," is at first reluctant to open up. Cheever, who's seen it all and is leaving the service for good with a bad back, is refreshingly frank but focused solely on returning to his wife. Colee, with no real family of her own, is traveling with the only remembrance she has from her relationship with a fallen fellow soldier: his beloved guitar, which she hopes to present to his parents. While far from the bombs and destruction, the trio is nonetheless still burdened by memories and nightmares.
Sadly, all get greeted by a stiff shot of reality, inexorably altered from the one they left behind. And after a stay in Iraq, it's the little things that make a big impression: indoor plumbing, gourmet meals, war-evaders. So, despite their shared duty, they are unified by their awkwardness and joy in again experiencing previously unappreciated everyday pleasures. Not quite ready to deal with outsiders, they are barely able to make the necessary emotional adjustment and as a result withdraw and come to depend even more on one another.
The story is raw, relatable and tremendously uplifting. And despite their vastly different destinations, the fleeting friendship makes clear: it's the journey that counts.