There's plenty of ambition and heart laid on the line in Sweet Land, particularly compared to most American indies—it's a period film spending serious amounts of time with the Lutheran farm folk of 1920 Minnesota, for one thing. It's also a parable about ethnocentrism, and a magnificently crafted piece of landscape portraiture. If that weren't enough, writer/director Ali Selim, in his first feature after decades as one of the country's most successful commercial directors, ruefully frames the story with contemporary action. Sweet Land almost never stops eulogizing its characters and their agrarian society.
The story is familiar in its essentials—a stranger arrives in town, upsetting its social equilibrium—but the particulars are robustly conceived: The wildcard is a German mail-order bride with no English (Elizabeth Reaser), summoned to the home of a shy Norwegian bachelor (Tim Guinee) only to discover that postwar prejudices prevent her from getting documented and therefore from marrying. With nowhere else to go, she settles in anyway, one way or the other, as the community is rocked by hard times and farm foreclosures.
If the film soothes a largely neglected lobe on your moviegoing forebrain, it's because Selim cares about his cast (which includes John Heard, Ned Beatty, and Lois Smith) enough to let them breathe in their parts, which are generous and fastidiously 3-D. Alan Cumming, as a guileless family friend, is finally endurable, while Guinee (an underused and riveting member of the '90s post–Brat Pack generation) is never less than wholly convincing. Reaser is compelled to carry the film with her eyes and smile, and that she manages without showboating is some kind of triumph. Sweet Land is super-sweet and, in the end, dramatically thin, but any film that showers this much visual love on the hard life of preindustrialized farming demands respect.