Perhaps the most egregious failing of writer-director Alan Hruska's debut feature Nola is that there's not a frame of truth in it. Depending upon how you feel about lawyers (Hruska is a former trial lawyer who spent many years at a white-shoe Wall Street firm), such relentless mendacity (as Tennesse Williams' Big Daddy might coin it) is either ironic or par for the legal system.
The guiltiest party is either actress Emmy Rossum, who plays Nola, or Hruska, who set her up for the role of the 18-year-old Kansan who escapes a trailer-trash family that includes an abusive stepfather and a drug-addict mother. In looks, demeanor, dialogue and even costumes, Rossum stubbornly comes across as something much different than straight outta Kansas--in fact, a smart twentysomething straight outta Sarah Lawrence with a yen for Yale Drama School. (Rossum has, in fact, had a number of interesting roles, including those in Audrey, as the young Hepburn; Mystic River, as Sean Penn's doomed daughter, and The Day After Tomorrow.) She is further distanced from the Kansas corn by Hruska's dialogue, too much of which requires his young lead to deliver smart-ass femme-fatale repartee right out of a '40s noir and wise beyond the character's alleged 18 years.
If the story isn't all corn, it's as flat and familiar as a Kansas plain. Newly arrived in New York, Nola sleeps in Central Park, finds work at an East Village coffee shop, and accepts lodging from co-worker Ben (James Badge Dale), who is actually a law student who will prove his alleged brilliance in a ridiculous courtroom episode near the film's denouement. Moving up the ladder, Nola lands a job as assistant to escort service honcho and coffee shop landlady Margaret (Mary McDonnell), a tough-as-nails but essentially decent dragon lady with swell digs on lower Fifth Avenue that Nola soon shares.
After Nola moves in, she pursues her true goal of trying to find her real father. She crosses paths with journalist Leo (Steven Bauer), another friend of Margaret's, and crosses swords with Niles (Thom Christopher), a very mean mogul and client of Margaret's with kinky sex habits, who has a nasty run-in with a transvestite trick (Michael Cavadias).
When Niles threatens to ruin Margaret after some nasty headlines about him hit the paper, Nola, Ben and Leo take action. Ben, leveraging all he learned from his night-school law studies, saves the day in court. Nola finds her real dad, and justice is done to everyone except the audience.
Nor have bit players been spared, as evidenced by the impossibly prissy restaurant maitre d' and that oh-so-familiar, sarcastic and no-nonsense African-American female judge.
As bland and tiresome as a traffic court hearing, Nola is most intriguing as a film with a producer named Footlick and a villain who is a foot fetishist. The filmmaker might enter a "nola contendere" plea regarding that oddity.
But the book should be thrown at a lawyer turned filmmaker who doesn't understand that an audience, like a judge and jury of peers, values and deserves the truth.