Our Rating: ★★★½☆
L Factor: Major lesbian characters
Short Take: Abortion, drugs and media pawns
Alternate Titles:
Year: 1996
Duration: 106 min
Language: USA/English
MPAA: R
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Starring: Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Burt Reynolds

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Citizen RuthBack in the early 1990s, when I was embroiled in heavy duty pro-choice, abortion clinic defense, we would often have discussions about the political stances we must take as an organization. These points of view were usually more radical than our personal points of view, but were necessary to frame the political and moral debate.

Citizen Ruth is a satire of both pro-choice and anti-choice activists, including their methods and motivations. It lampoons the extremes and the stereotypes, but aptly points out how a pregnant woman can get batted around like a political Ping-Pong ball, by both sides, without much regard to the women’s wants and needs.

Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern, Ellen, Jurassic Park) is a dimwitted, paint-huffing, homeless addict who has already had four children taken away. Thrown in jail again, the judge gives her the option of less time behind bars if she has an abortion. Luck would have it that she meets members of the Baby Savers, who are in jail for unlawfully protesting at an abortion clinic. Gail (Mary Kay Place, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, The Big Chill) and her husband Norm (Kurtwood Smith, That ’70s Show) bail Ruth out and welcome her into their home, offering her a safe place to have her baby.

All of a sudden, Ruth finds herself at the center of a storm of public attention, as the Baby Savers use her case as media bait. Ruth wants an abortion to avoid more jail time and is a little freaked out by her hosts’ Holly Hobby lifestyle and cheesy in-house church services, complete with hymns. (If you are at all familiar with Mary Kay Place, then you know that she is perfect for this role!)

When Ruth steals money to get high, Gail and Norm kick her out of the house, but she is taken in by Diane (Swoosie Kurtz, Sisters, Dangerous Liaisons), one of Gail’s best friends. Once at home, Diane takes off her wig and phony sugar-coated accent to reveal that she is really an undercover pro-choice activist. She and her partner Rachel (Kelly Preston, Jerry Maguire) are happy to help Ruth get the abortion she wants. The pro-choice group is stereotypically led by lesbians who manage to throw in a little moon goddess worship the first night.

Once again, Ruth is used to send a message as a political tool. She is not at all a bright woman, continuing to drink and huff paint, but she does know that she doesn’t want to be used by anyone.

Laura Dern gives a great performance as a very believable Ruth, and the supporting cast all seem perfect for their roles. It is best if you don’t think of this as a comedy, as it deals with serious issues, and there are very few laughs. It is one of those films that will have you thinking throughout – about crack babies, indigent women, and the politics and economics of choice.  (AB)