“Looking back, no matter how old you are, life always feels the same length: both forever and not very long.” That’s how Colewell (2019; streaming for free on Amazon Prime) begins, and the rest of the film is an elegy to a possibly disappearing way of life, situated within a rumination on life and age and memory. Set in a small, fictional Pennsylvania town, it follows Eleanore, known to everyone as Nora (the excellent Karen Allen, probably most famous for her role as Marion in the Indiana Jones movies), who has been the post-mistress in Colewell for over 30 years.
Nora is perfectly content to go through the same routine every day, putting on the coffee, sorting the mail, chatting with the customers, all of whom she knows by name. And the post office serves as the central gathering place, where people sit, stand, talk, and gossip. In the larger picture, it is a movie about small towns everywhere, about politics and money, about community, and about the mundane but essential tasks that make up people’s lives. (For six years or so, I was a pastor at a church in a small town in Minnesota where the post office closed; that one and the office in the other small town where I lived both served much the same function as the post office does in Colewell.) And it is about loss: loss of purpose, loss of community, loss of family. As Charles (Kevin J. O’Connor) tells Nora, “Life’s hard in that you lose people—in all kinds of ways.”
The movie is positioned within that larger picture of small towns and closing post offices, but the focus is on one particular life and how one’s days and months and years can pass by largely unnoticed. The unexpected crisis in Nora’s life is provoked by the notice that the Colewell post office is going to be closed, and her position there is going to be terminated. She is given the option of retiring or moving to another office in a larger town. But she does not have a car, and she has trouble envisioning herself riding a bus to that town every morning for work. She does visit the town, ostensibly to buy the postage and supplies that she ordered but did not arrive, and perhaps her mind is made up by that visit.
Throughout the aftermath and forced decisions of her post office closing, she is made to confront her unexamined life and her early convictions about life, place, and home. This is shown by a particular narrative device which may or may not finally work, but I don’t think it is overwrought. In fact, the film avoids using this particular convention in an easy or clichéd way that would neutralize its effectiveness. In addition, the acting on the part of both Allen and Hannah Gross (who plays Ellie) keep it from being cloying or overly melodramatic.
Colewell easily could have become a Lifetime-esque television drama. But it is deftly directed and Allen, along with the local extras and their believability, give it formidable emotional heft. The soundtrack does its job, and the establishing shots of rural Pennsylvania are my sort of natural aesthetic. I was unexpectedly moved and it does what you expect a solid, well-told story to do: cause you both to imagine living in the context of the main character, as well as to re-consider and evaluate your own life and decisions. I don’t remember how it made it on to my to-watch list, but it is definitely an under-noticed gem from 2019.