Dakota Fanning as Annie James and Emile Hirsch as Frank...

Dakota Fanning as Annie James and Emile Hirsch as Frank in a scene from "The Motel Life," directed by Alan Polsky. Credit: Polsky Films

Alan and Gabe Polsky are brothers, which may explain why "The Motel Life," their first foray into directing, is such an affecting piece of filmmaking. The movie, based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, delves into the relationship of another set of brothers as they throw up a united front against an assault of bad luck.

Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) and Frank (Emile Hirsch) haven't had it easy. Their father left when they were young, and their mom died when they were teenagers. Not long after, Jerry Lee lost a leg while trying to jump on a moving train. But at least the two have always had each other. The two are inseparable and completely devoted to one another, even when Jerry Lee makes a string of horrible decisions.

One night, he kills a boy while driving, but rather than call the cops, he drops the body off near a hospital, then sets fire to his car. Much of the movie deals with whether the men should stay put in Reno or flee to another town.

Hirsch and Dorff do a tremendous job playing the alcoholic caretaker and the hapless ne'er-do-well, respectively. Dorff looks the part of the gaunt and prematurely aged Jerry Lee, and he captures his character's slow unraveling. Frank isn't one to talk about his feelings, so when Hirsch is shown driving around aimlessly with an expressionless face and a single tear rolling down his cheek, the result is heartbreaking.

Yet, for all its melancholy and gray, snowy landscape, "The Motel Life" never feels totally hopeless, thanks in large part to colorful ancillary characters. Dakota Fanning shows up in a bittersweet subplot as Frank's former love interest, and Kristofferson has a memorable bit role as a father figure.

These characters make the film feel more approachable, as does Jerry Lee and Frank's relationship. Sure, they've experienced more bleak episodes than many people, but this isn't just a tale of woe. It's about the incredible bond of two siblings, who can't help but want to make things right.

PLOT Two devoted brothers deal with some bad luck.

RATING R (sexual content, language, some nudity, brief violent images, drug references)

CAST Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning


BOTTOM LINE Uplifting story of an incredible bond between siblings.

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