The film is based on the true story of a man named Alvin Straight. Straight, an elderly World War II and Korean War veteran living with his brain-damaged daughter Rose, hears that his estranged brother Lyle has had a stroke. Disappointed that he's never made up for the incident that (he was drunk at the time) led to their split, he decides to reconcile with Lyle before one of them dies.
Unfortunately, Straight is almost blind and half paralyzed, which leaves him unable to walk long distances or get a legal driver's license. Unwilling to let life end this way, he hitches a trailer to his riding lawnmower and proceeds to tackle the 240 mile journey from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin so that he may make amends with his sick brother.
Not to be confused with Straight Story, a Greek movie about straight couples in a gay world.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptational Name Change: The name of Alvin Straight's brother was changed from Henry to Lyle, mainly due to Alvin's brother not wanting his real name used in the film.
- Biopic: There was a real Alvin Straight, though unfortunately he did not live to see the film.
- Blatant Lies: The doctor tells Alvin he's dying (not in so many words, but still). When Alvin's brain damaged daughter asks how it went:Alvin: Doctor said I'll live to be a hundred.
- Cain and Abel: Alvin and Lyle, even suggested by Alvin himself.
- Campfire Character Exploration: Provides the setting for An Aesop subplot. Alvin passes a young female hitchhiker who later approaches his campfire and says that she could not get a ride. In conversation, Alvin astutely deduces that she is pregnant and has run away from home. Alvin tells the hitchhiker about the importance of family by using the metaphor of a bundle of sticks that is hard to break. The next day Alvin find that his hitchhiker friend has gone but left him a bundle of sticks tied together, implying that she plans to return home to her own family.
- Child Soldiers: Invoked by Alvin, who mentions having to kill German soldiers during the war who couldn't have been more than seventeen.
- Cool Old Guy: Alvin himself. Not only did he travel all the way to see his dying brother on a lawn mower, he's a nice man.
- Determinator: Alvin Straight's biggest flaw, oddly enough. His life would probably be better if he stopped drinking when his brother wanted him to and listened to his doctor. Still, you have to say something for a man who's blind and barely able to walk who is able to make it across the country to visit his brother.
- Double-Meaning Title: The man's name is Alvin Straight, but calling the movie "The Straight Story" makes joking reference to the fact that David Lynch is "playing it straight" and telling a coherent, mainstream "story" instead of screwing with your head as usual. On top of that, it's just a very simple, straightforward movie.
- Eagleland: Flavor 1. Without irony. All these white-picket fence communities filled with nice neighbors willing to help each other out, even a strange old man riding a lawnmower across the countryside.
- Ghibli Hills: The camera spends a lot of time caressing the landscape as Alvin travels.
- Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Not in the movie, but a meta-example. Richard Farnsworth was going to turn down the film because he didn't like the language in Blue Velvet. Only after several personal assurances by Lynch and the other writers that the film would contain no cursing did he agree to do it.
- Informed Flaw: Alvin's alcoholism to an extent. In the film he's been reformed for years, but the movie makes it very clear the toll that hard living has had on him. Also, averted in Real Life - Richard Farnsworth really was half-blind and half-paralyzed. Indeed, the actor committed suicide shortly after the film rather than bear extremely painful and obviously terminal bone cancer.
- Lighter and Softer: Big time compared to the rest of David Lynch's filmography. The worst thing that happens in the film is Alvin recounting some war stories, and even then they aren't graphic.
- No Antagonist: Every character who appears in the film is a good person in some sense of the word; the closest we ever get is the fact that there are some people who try to talk Alvin out of the journey, and even then they're just concerned for his safety.
- Rousseau Was Right: There is not a single character in this movie to be actually unpleasant. More or less everyone is a saint.
- Scenery Porn: The natural beauty of the region is on full display.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Alvin
- Signature Style: If you pay attention during a David Lynch movie to anything other than the abstract weirdness, you'll be amazed how much this actually does resemble his previous work.
- Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer: Harry Dean Stanton plays Lyle.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Strongly Idealistic.
- The Sons and the Spears: Used as a metaphor for family, with Alvin convincing the pregnant teenage runaway to go back home to her family, who will eventually understand. Within Alvin's own narrative, it reinforces his plot-driving need to reconnect with his estranged brother.
- Verbal Tic: Rose Straight has difficulty speaking and forces her words out in short bursts. This causes people to assume she's mentally challenged, but Alvin assures us she's perfectly intelligent.
- You Answered Your Own Question: Dorothy: "What's the number for 911?"