Josephine feels like a country song brought to cinematic life. It's tough yet tender, presenting gritty characters in the midst of idyllic rural settings.
It's no surprise that the film has musical roots. Director Rory Feek first turned the story into a tune for the Grammy-nominated country duo, Joey + Rory, which he formed with his late wife, Joey Martin Feek. After reading a series of Civil War-era letters between a Confederate soldier and his wife in Tennessee, Feek wrote the hit song, "Josephine."
The film follows the titular character while she poses as a soldier in an effort to find her husband. (Research estimates that up to 1,000 women disguised themselves as men in the Union and Confederate armies.)
Dressed in her husband's clothes and donning short hair, Josephine enlists as Joseph Robison. We see her travel across three war-torn states — a journey that shines a raw, harsh light on American identity while she hides her own.
Alice Coulthard carries the film gracefully, making Josephine's hope and heartache our own. Boris McGiver is equally effective as a fellow soldier who befriends her; he is a man struggling to bury the vulnerability beneath his bravado. And Jessejames Locorriere is simultaneously menacing and tragic as the leader of the troop, always showing the pain beneath his abusive ways.
The film's greatest strength lies in how it captures beauty amid brutality. Bryan Allen's cinematography is breathtaking. He casts a delicate light on the characters as they wade through the devastation. And the soundtrack, which features songs from such acclaimed country artists as Loretta Lynn and Gillian Welch, also brings a gentle touch to the melancholy subject matter. The music and visuals blend perfectly.
Josephine isn't completely polished. It has some awkward, melodramatic moments. Like its protagonist, it occasionally stumbles through its setting, but it ultimately emerges as a powerful example of courage in the face of defeat.
The film is even more poignant if you know about Feek's wife and her battle with cancer. It feels like his last letter to her — a portrait of a woman painted with pure love.
Feek's wife was from Alexandria, Indiana. Their daughter's name is Indy. Josephine feels like a tribute to them both. I can't imagine a more beautiful swan song to close out this year's Heartland Film Festival.
(Editor's Note: This article was graciously boosted on social media by Heartland Film Fest [heartlandfilm.org/festival]. Heartland Film Fest had no input on the content in this article or the decision to create it.)