Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines (1977) is one of the essential films of American independent cinema.
The story of an alternative weekly paper in Boston during the rocky transition features John Heard as the star investigative reporter whose most provocative work is behind him but still manages to provoke the paper’s publisher, but he’s just one of the many central characters in this ensemble drama.
Lindsay Crouse plays the paper’s photographer and Heard’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jeff Goldblum is the eccentric rock critic (he provides the comic relief with his antics and off-the-cuff comments), and Jill Eikenberry is the receptionist and “beating heart of the paper,” who still believes in the progressive ideals and journalistic ambitions that launched the paper years ago. They were all up-and-coming talents when the film came out, along with fellow cast members Bruno Kirby, Gwen Welles, Stephen Collins, Joe Morton, and Marilu Henner, and they all offer characters with unexpected dimensions and sometimes frustrating contradictions. Michael J. Pollard opens and closes the film as “the Hawker” who, like a newspaper boy in an old movie, walks the streets of Boston selling the latest edition of the weekly paper.
It’s quite a time capsule, recalling an era of independent weekly newspapers and investigative journalism that challenged the more conservative approach of daily newspapers. But the portrait of thirty-something professionals ruminating on lost idealism and the compromises they have made over the years, and forced to decide where they stand when the independent paper is sold to a large media company, is timeless.
Silver, directing from a screenplay by Fred Barron, produced it outside of the studio system and the character-based comedy-drama anticipates not only films like The Big Chill (1983) but the increasingly successful American indie era of small, smart films built on character-based stories, from sex, lies and videotape (1989) to Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Juno (2007).
It won prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and recognition from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Boston Society of Film Critics, and was restored on 2019 for a brief theatrical rerelease.
The Blu-ray and DVD releases feature a Q&A with filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver.