Review: A Moving Portrait of a Quiet Life in Colewell

The sophomore effort from writer/director Tom Quinn (The New Year Parade) is exactly the kind of movie that could easily get lost in the shuffle of awards-season contenders and bigger-budget studio works. But a recent pair of Film Independent Spirit Awards nominations (including a much-deserved nod to lead Karen Allen) will hopefully garner Colewell the attention it so richly deserves and serve as an incentive to devoted cinephiles to seek out the film as soon as possible.


Image courtesy of Facets

Allen plays Nora Pancowski, a veteran postmaster of a small post office in Colewell, Pennsylvania, which seems to be incorporated into her own modest home. For 35 years, Nora has gotten up early every day to feed and tend to her chickens out back, and then goes through her daily routines to open and run the post office for her mostly elderly customers. But this is more than a job to Nora; it’s her primary social outlet. People don’t just come to send and pick up mail; the outpost is a gathering place with chairs, coffee, candy dishes—all contributing to a sense of community and belonging that Nora considers part of her job. Probably her closest friend is a fellow postal worker, Charles (the great Kevin J. O’Connor), who stop by every morning to deliver supplies and any mail that needs to be distributed to her customers.

Then one day Nora receives a letter from the regional headquarters informing her that the office will be closed and that her contract with the Post Office will not be renewed; she’ll be given the chance to reapply for another position at the closest larger office, but for a woman in her late 60s with no car on a modest income, the idea of hopping a bus every morning to a distant town seems like no life at all. And slowly, Nora begins to take stock in her life, how she got to Colewell in the first place, and what real loneliness feels like. Allen is exquisite here and adds such a dignity and quiet perfect to Nora, while the people around her cry foul at the post office’s decision and worry about her future.

It isn’t until this bad news comes that Nora’s history factors into Colewell. We get glimpses of her past life as a free-spirited girl, hitchhiking around the country, never taking root until she met a nice man and they settled down in this small town. But the past doesn’t creep back into her thinking because she regrets her life choices; she’s remembering the last time she had this amount of freedom. In her early 20s, it was exciting to live untethered, but today, the prospect is terrifying. The movie captures Nora’s small, quiet, contemplative life so beautifully, and the impact it has on viewers may vary. It may seem too closed off to some, but others may view the intimacy and quiet of her existence with a great deal of envy.

Through her interactions with a younger woman named Ella (Hannah Gross, who may or may not represent a younger version of Nora—the film is deliberately vague about this), Nora begins to adjust to the idea that her life has one more, unexpected chapter left to it, and the film leaves her decision to either move or retire unresolved at its conclusion. Colewell is a movie about reflection and our value to the work and ourselves as we get older. I found it deeply, profoundly and unexpectedly moving, and I can’t urge you more strongly to find a way to see this movie, if only for Allen in peak form.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque. Actor Kevin J. O’Connor will be at Facets for post-screening Q&As after the 7pm screening on Friday, December 13, as well as the 5pm and 7pm screenings on Saturday, December 14.

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