"Ashland" is a carefully planned character study that doesn't oversell its premise.
Still, I think there are two central problems. I should note that since the ratings are high and from a large sample, and since this has been a Featured Submission, I'm going to be in the minority, so please use whatever sized grain of salt you find helpful in considering these suggestions.
What first struck me was the beautiful writing in the action descriptions: concise but evocative prose with individualized, active action verbs. A strong, clear writer's voice and a consistent tone. But then I noticed a major problem with the characterization, and I believe that these well-written paragraphs are one of the sources of the problem.
For me, all your characters lack the semblance of autonomy--they serve to move the story forward, but they have no inner life. Grace is an alcoholic mother, not Keith's mother. Keith himself has a mysterious backstory, but it's not at odds with anything. At the end of Act 1, when--according to convention--the protagonist chooses to commit to action, Keith does in fact decide to fill out the application, but while he's shown as procrastinating on that decision, there was never any real tension. Grace did oppose Keith becoming a fireman, but he wouldn't do what she says anyway. Later, when Madeline appears and is described as Paul's sister and married, the audience knows that soon she and Keith will hook up. And when Jason has to be removed quickly, he's providentially killed in a car accident.
I think that instead of investing power in your characters, you retain it for yourself in those action paragraphs. You may get some feedback that you frequently use unfilmables. For me, the problem isn't that you insert statements that can't be shown visually, it's that these authorial comments serve to communicate meaning ("to tell"), when the actions of the characters should do so ("to show"). There are often several "tells" per page. Here are a few for examples:
He tries the radio again -- nothing he wants to listen to, only country music. So, he punches the console. (p. 1)
The silence between them is tense and too familiar. (p.1)
Her glare promises a long ride back home. (p.3)
...his eyes widen at the amount of product needed to keep Grace’s hair in place (p.3)
Thomas just feels awkward. (p.4)
Technically, the glare and eye-widening are visual actions, but it's necessary to then tell the audience what they mean. These passages would be fine in a third-person novel, where the author presents the thoughts of the character. But film doesn't do so, except with voice-overs--and ideally few of those. If you forced yourself to avoid narrating the inner world of the characters, and instead conveyed the same information with dialog and action (preferably action), you'd give your characters the complexity and autonomy that they need to draw the audience into the story.
The second major problem for me is action-as-structure (in addition to the action-as-character problem described above). Specifically, you have a second act--half your story--without any driving goal on Keith's part. He joins the fire department, and lots of conflicts ensue, but these don't prevent him from serving. They're spats, not stumbling blocks.
Of course I'm describing the traditional Hollywood formula. A low-concept character study might SEEM different. But if you look at something like The Station Agent, you'll notice that while the protag's goal might seem insubstantial or weak, the subtlety results from an inactive character, in fact the character is deeply committed to a goal, but the goal is simply more personal (not more trivial) than what we expect in a Batman film. This would not be such a problem with a novel--it's not unusual for the drive of the narrator to do the job of the character. But in film, it's all on screen.
The intelligence and subtlety of your approach are great strengths. Focusing more explicitly on the goal / intention of the protagonist won'd dumb down the story. Instead, it will capitalize on the strengths of your presentation and offer the audience a story that's fresh as well as familiar.
Review of: Ashland
reviewed by AlCielo on 02/17/2012
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