Wildlike


Bruce Davison and Ella Purnell contemplate Alaska.

Bruce Davison and Ella Purnell contemplate Alaska.

(2014) Adventure (Greenmachine) Ella Purnell, Bruce Greenwood, Nolan Gerard Funk, Brian Geraghty, Diane Farr, Joshua Leonard, Ann Farr, Russell Josh Peterson, Bradford Jackson, Pamela R. Klein, Erin Lindsay King, Elias Christeas, Teddy Kyle Smith, Ching Tseng, Thomas Mark Higgins, Tom Okamoto, Leo Grinberg, Erick Robertson, Joe Tapangco. Directed by Frank Hall Green

Florida Film Festival 2015

When we read about teen runaways, often we look at them as anti-authoritarians who couldn’t handle being told what to do. We look down upon them, feeling that they are responsible for their own mess, and that certainly is true in some cases. The reality is that sometimes running away is the only option.

Mackenzie (Purnell) has come to Juneau, Alaska from Seattle because she really has no other choice; her father has passed away within the last year and her mother is entering treatment in Seattle for her drug dependency. She’s staying with her Uncle (Geraghty) who at first seems to be trying to be nice in the face of teen “whatever, go screw yourself” attitude and raccoon-like eye make-up from Mackenzie. She seems to warm up to him when he gives her an iPhone.

Then things get messy. A nocturnal incident leaves Mackenzie feeling vulnerable and alone; she knows she has to leave. So when the opportunity presents itself, out she gets. Armed with money she stole from her Uncle, she sets out to make her way home to Seattle but what she doesn’t realize is that Alaska is a big effin’ state.

Trying to get in out of the cold and the rain, she breaks into a motel room but it turns out that it’s not empty; Rene “Bart” Bartlett (Greenwood) has rented the room and he’s getting ready to undertake a difficult task – to hike through Denali National Park alone. When Bartlett discovers Mackenzie under the bed, she bolts, unnerving him.

For some reason she latches onto him and follows him to Denali and then into the wilderness, much to his chagrin. He tries to convince her to head back but she refuses and so reluctantly he takes the woefully unprepared girl along with him. What he ends up discovering is that he needs her as much as she needs him.

I’m not sure how to characterize this film, whether it is a coming of age film or an Alaska wilderness adventure or a social commentary. It has elements of all of these things and you wouldn’t be wrong in characterizing it as any of the three. It definitely has that in its favor; it is a tale told in a unique manner.

Also in its favor is the beautiful vistas we see throughout. Alaska is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and it just isn’t shown in movies nearly enough, probably having to do with the remoteness of most of the state. Filming here can be a challenge and the window of opportunity can be small seasonally speaking. Green, a first-time director who has hiked Denali himself on several occasions and has been a outdoors type for most of his life, knows Alaska well enough to choose some brilliant locations and to get the shots he needs. This is a gorgeous movie that will certainly inspire some to want to venture to the 49th state.

Also to its advantage is the performance of Purnell, who captures the look and attitude of a teen girl damn near perfectly. She’s got all the attitude in the world, affecting a “I don’t care” look that most teenage girls master at an early age but the inner vulnerability and scared little girl comes out at the right times. Mackenzie is 14 in the film and Purnell was 19 when the movie was made which is a bit of a relief considering some of the scenes she has to play here.

And there are a few scenes that are pretty difficult, particularly the one which is the cause of Mackenzie’s need to leave. It is handled respectfully, not in a prurient manner but more in a matter-of-fact kind of way. And yes, there is a creepy factor when you throw a teen girl and a middle-aged man into the same tent, but to Green’s credit (as well as Greenwood’s), the awkwardness mostly comes from the viewer’s own preconceived notion of why a middle-aged man would hang out with a young girl.

The movie doesn’t explain a lot of things, leaving the audience to kind of explain them on their own. We never get a sense of why Mackenzie follows Bart into the wilderness; it seems to be a random and spur-of-the-moment choice which, to b fair, is often how teen girls seem to act. I suppose it’s better to let us invent our own story rather than to spoon feed us but more framework would have been nice. There’s also a scene in which Bart and Mackenzie encounter a group of people testing out kites in which an important monologue is delivered but the music is so loud that it is difficult to hear what is being said.

Quibbles aside, this is a solid, well-made and beautifully photographed movie that will stick with you. Solid performances by most of the lead cast and a compelling story will leave you hooked. At present the film is on the festival circuit but hopefully it will be grabbed by a distributor for either a limited theatrical run or a VOD release. It deserves to be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous Alaskan wilderness. Handles difficult subjects respectfully. Purnell gets attitude and look down pat.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit light in connecting the dots. Music overly loud in places it shouldn’t be.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing sexual scenes and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Purnell, an English actress, spoke with an American accent from the moment she got off the plane in Alaska and stayed in that accent 24/7 until she got on the plane for home when shooting was completed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Druid Peak
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrow We Disappear

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The Truth About Romance


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A beautiful girl on the bank of a canal - ah, English Spring!

A beautiful girl on the bank of a canal – ah, English Spring!

2013) Romantic Dramedy (A Tiny Adventure/Vimeo) Jordan Greenhough, Danielle Jackson, Craig Asquith, Donna Parry, Leonora Moore, Margaret Cowan. Directed by James G. Wall

There is something about twenty-somethings. At that age, emotion is felt most keenly and love is a life or death struggle. When you make it to my age, you look back on that time of your life with a mixture of nostalgia – I do miss the intensity of feeling and that bloom of love that makes life so much more colorful – and relief. Relief in that I no longer have to put up with that crap.

Josh (Greenhough) is unfortunately smack dab in the middle of that age and like many men that age is caught in the undertow and treacherous currents that are smashing him about the rocks of life. He has been in love with Jessie (Moore) – a co-worker of his – for years. They’ve been sharing a lift to work each morning and Josh has finally decided to confess his feelings to her.

She has news of her own however: she has a new job, one that will take her to Paris. Josh is devastated. His shrill harpy of a mother (Cowan) warned him that this was going to happen and now it has. He texts his pal Chris (Asquith), meaning to get together with him to drown his sorrows in lager. Chris receives his texts at the breakfast table, oblivious to the sad looks that his girlfriend Zoe (Parry) is shooting him. She is thinking they could go out together tonight but Chris has already said yes to a boy’s night out. Resigned, she watches him leave for work.

Josh is eating his lunch on a park bench disconsolately when a beautiful young woman sits down next to him. Perky and pixiesque, she draws him out of his funk somewhat and before he knows what is happening he has given her his name, accepted an invitation to a party that evening and taken a note with her address and mobile number on it. She introduces herself as Emily (Jackson).

At first Josh is reluctant to go to the party but Chris insists once he finds out about it. He knows full well that the best thing for Josh is some meaningless sex, preferably with someone who has absolutely no ambitions. Josh winds up misinterpreting Emily’s signals but the two wind up in her bedroom, getting to know each other in a non-Biblical sense and for his part, Josh is completely enchanted by her.

Chris on the other hand gets rip-roaring, out-of-his-mind, stupid drunk. He meets a pair of young women at the party and sleeps with both of them…at once. When he gets home, Zoe can smell their perfume on him and demands to know what happened. Chris confesses his sins and Zoe tells him to get his bottom right out the door. He ends up staying with Josh.

Josh is rightfully concerned for his best mate but he is completely head-over-heels in love with Emily and in all honesty, it’s hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t be. She’s bright, sexy, funny and flirtatious. She draws Josh out of the shell he’s in and slowly he lets her in.

As the weekend progresses, Josh’s relationship with Emily seems to be going better and better whereas Chris and Zoe are disintegrating before their eyes. Chris realizes that he loves Zoe and doesn’t want to be without her but that ship may well have sailed. As for Josh and Emily, he can’t bear to be apart from her…but does she feel the same way about him?

Wall has previously made a handful of short films; this is his feature debut. Like an increasing number of young filmmakers, he is eschewing the system of shopping his film to distributors and instead is putting it right on YouTube and Vimeo for anyone to stream or download at their leisure – those interested in seeing it can click here if they wish. With a production budget of under £200 (about $325 U.S. at current exchange rates) this is the kind of movie even I can afford to make – but to Wall’s credit, it doesn’t look at all like a movie that costs less than an annual Disney pass.

It is also a lot better written than most first-time features. There’s an authenticity here that you generally don’t find in a big-budget Hollywood production. These are people who are awkward and unsure of the rules of the game – like playing chess with checker pieces on a Monopoly board. They are terrified of rejection, longing for acceptance and lonely in the soul-crushing way that can only be experienced by someone in their 20s. Constantly glued to their iPhones texting one another, playing videogames and waiting for that phone call, this is as realistic a portrayal of people in their 20s in the second decade of the 21st century as you’re likely to find. If these aspects place the film firmly in this era, I still think that there is a timeless element to the goings-on as well.

The cast is surprisingly able. Josh listens to music constantly on a pair of ear buds and occasionally warbles a tune or two of his own. Greenhough instills Josh with a goofy kind of charm, a big kid with shoes on the wrong feet. Somehow you end up rooting for him even though he can be a frustrating handful – at one point he waits for Emily to call him but clearly is desperate to talk to her. You want to shake him by the scruff of his neck and scream “CALL HER YOU IDIOT!!!!” I can completely relate to the character, having been a shy and graceless twenty-something myself once. Fortunately, I survived and so will Josh.

Jackson is crazy beautiful, the kind of gorgeous that makes you look twice to make sure you saw her right the first time. In a lot of indie films, this kind of character is full of quirks and neuroses that if you met that sort in real life you wouldn’t want to spend five seconds with them let alone 90 minutes. Jackson gives her a vulnerability that is curiously moving as well as an intelligence that makes you hang on her every word. With Zooey Deschanel getting fame and fortune on television, there is a void in the indie film world that I think Jackson could potentially fill; indie filmmakers should have her number on speed dial.

I also liked Asquith as the lovable schlub Chris who gets drunk and makes a startlingly bad decision. I know from experience that cheating is a deal-breaker for a lot of women and frankly, I felt a certain amount of sympathy for him but also for Zoe as well. Their relationship was clearly on the ropes already with both of them being desperately unhappy but they were too frightened to let go. One might argue that his indiscretion might have been the best thing for the both of them as it allows them both to move on. I’m sure a lot of women might disagree with me there. In any case, Chris as played by Asquith isn’t a particularly mean or rotten guy; he’s just not very sensitive or wise about women. Women generally characterize guys like him as jerks but that might be a bit harsh – Chris really doesn’t intend to hurt anybody. Of course, intentions are immaterial; he in fact does wound Zoe deeply and there are consequences to that which Chris eventually accepts.

I remember the great American film critic Gene Siskel used to love movies like this, films that give you a peek into ordinary lives and through that glimpse allow you to draw insights into your own life. I think he might well have given this film a solid thumbs up although there are a few things that he would have called it to task for – one of the most glaring is that the music is mainly composed of Jacko Hooper’s indie pop songs with vocals which sometimes make it difficult for you to hear the actual dialogue of the film. While I understand this is meant to give you an idea of what Josh is listening to on his headphones or on the radio or at the party, it is distracting when you are trying to make out what the characters are trying to say. I wound up having to rewind a couple of times until I understood the dialogue. Perhaps Mr. Wall would have been better served to get instrumental tunes on the soundtrack.

Be that as it may, this is impressive not just for a first time film, not just for a film with a three figure budget but for any film. Love and relationships is a tricky subject for any filmmaker; while we all have been through the romance wars, few of us truly understand what love is and entails. Even at my advanced age I can’t say as I’m an expert; not everything that works for me will work for others and vice versa. All I know is that it is wonderful and terrible to be in love. It is far worse not to be.

REASONS TO GO: Looks like it had a far bigger budget than it had. A realistic slice of life.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes hard to hear the dialogue over the pop music playing constantly in the background.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and drinking, along with some mildly bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily, when asked to name her favorite book and band, names Blankets, the award-winning autobiographical graphic novel by Craig Thompson, and Jacko Hooper who wrote and performed the music and songs for the film.

CRITICAL MASS: Because this film has been release via YouTube and Vimeo there is no page for it on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wild Girl Waltz

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2013 Begins!