In a dusty small town, a young woman harbours dreams of escaping her troubled trailer-park life to find happiness in the big city. Sound familiar? It should do, as the set-up for Wayne Roberts’ debut feature Katie Says Goodbye is the stuff of any number of American indies and the film initially plays like a laundry list of tropes. Its titular character, the eternally optimistic Katie (Olivia Cooke), is not only a sweet-as-pie pit-stop waitress but also a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold. She’s scraping together enough cash to go start a new life in San Francisco, but not before the film inflicts a remarkable amount of pain and misery on her.
At first, it seems like Katie’s sunny disposition is impossible to crack. Her father left a long time ago, leaving her alone with her unemployed mother (Mireille Enos), yet every night, Katie cheerfully says goodnight to her missing dad, wherever he may be. Her side-line in prostitution seems to be an open secret in town and every local guy partakes in her services, from kindly trucker Bear (Jim Belushi) to her workmate’s father (Nathan Corrdry). Katie accepts a life that most people would find extremely troubling in a smiley, matter of fact way, squirrelling away as much cash as she can in a shoebox adorned with pictures of the Golden Gate bridge.
Things briefly look to be on the up for Katie when she meets Bruno (Christopher Abbot), an ex-con who has turned up at the local garage. Bruno is closed off to the point of being almost mute but Katie is smitten and the two start a tentative relationship, which angers Bruno’s loathsome boss Dirk (Chris Lowell) who has lusted after Katie for a long time. She eventually falls in love with Bruno and he agrees to leave with her to San Francisco – what could possibly go wrong? Well, everything really.
Although Roberts clearly admires his protagonist’s resilience, he is determined to test it as much as he possibly can. His script piles on the misery, hitting Katie with every possible worst-case scenario until her life is just about as low as it can go. Most of the despair she suffers is telegraphed early on and it’s frustrating to watch the naïve Katie setting herself up for such obvious falls. But if her motivations are muddy, Cooke’s winning performance ensures the character is always believable. Cooke previously impressed in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl but she is a revelation here, imbuing her character with a childlike innocence despite the very adult life she’s forced to lead, and a relentless optimism in the face of an increasingly difficult, punishing existence.
As well as Cooke, there are excellent performances to be found in the supporting cast. Christopher Abbott brings the same kind of intensity that he brought to his raw, devastating turn in Josh Mond’s James White. He has a brooding, muscular screen presence and here he seems to be repressing a deep rage that he knows could land him back in prison. There’s also a typically smart, likeable performance from Mary Steenburgen as Katie’s boss and probably the only positive influence on her life. She knows more than she lets on and tries to steer Katie in the right direction without preaching.
If the familiar indie trappings make it easy to settle into Katie Says Goodbye, the never-ending despair its central character has to endure quickly makes you wonder: what is the point of all of this? But gradually over its third act, the cumulative power of Roberts’ film begins to take shape and it’s ultimately a moving, if not entirely satisfying, experience. Roberts takes his central character as low as she can possibly go, but miraculously manages to pull off a hopeful ending that feels both earned and true to its character. It’s a difficult watch but one that’s worth enduring to see the blossoming talents both in front of an behind the camera.