A mother takes her son and her best friend on a trip into remote wilderness to scatter his father's ashes; they must confront their fears when a lone hiker begins following them.
I may sometimes be a little overly dramatic – and generally I won’t apologize for it. But when I see something which I see as a “first”, I need to make a big deal out of it. And you – my avid readers of 2 (what the heck, I’m feeling like my regular readers have increased – so)… and you – my avid readers of 3 – may agree with this declaration.
It’s never been my experience that a film provides the perfect amount of exposition – enough for the audience to really care and be completely invested when terrible things begin to occur in a horror film. Many times, there will be too much or too little – and generally, it’s rarely spot on. That doesn’t mean, however, that the rest of the film (the build-up and climax) are bad – quite the contrary.
Well, this particular new indie horror/thriller premiering at this year’s LA Film Fest is the first film I’ve seen, where the character histories are poignant, pitch-perfect and just the right dose. The rest of the film – not so good. It feels off-kilter. No one ever gets the exposition just right and fails at the rest of the film.
I’m talking about Desolation, from director Sam Patton and writers Matt Anderson and Michael Larson-Kangas.
Recent widow Abby (Jaimi Paige) and her long-time best friend Jen (Alyshia Ochse) take Abby’s 13-year old son Sam (Toby Nichols) out into the woods following his father’s death – to get back to living and to find closure by spreading their father/husband’s ashes into the wilderness he so loved and which was a part of their lives together. All is well until a mysterious hiker (Claude Duhamel) begins to follow them – eventually leading them all to fight for their lives.
Let me take a few paragraphs to properly gush for the performances from Paige and Ochse.
Oh. My. God. I loved these two women. This is where my mention of perfect exposition above – comes into play. It’s not an overload of information, but there are anecdotes these two women remember about their high school days – memories of boys and whatnot – while they’re enjoying a couple of bottles of wine and a joint not far from their campsite for the night. Both the dialogue and the ease of trust, familiarity and love between Abby and Jen – is beyond marvelous. There wasn’t a moment which felt forced or inauthentic and if you didn’t know better, you’d think that these two ladies really had known one another for a great many years.
There’s an earlier moment of conversation (being listened to by a should-be-asleep Sam) about how Abby’s coping with her loss – and the emotional moment ends with a tasteless joke which could only be shared (and appreciated) by two truly close friends.
This long stretch between the two actresses is the real thing. And both ladies have extensive and impressive resumes. I’ll use an old cliché phrase to express how I feel – I’d watch them read (or in this case, act) the phone book. This beautiful chemistry between these two relative unknowns – is enough (on its own) to recommend Desolation.
But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems and that this recommendation doesn’t come with strong reservations.
As young Sam, Toby Nichols has a few good moments, but he never manages to reach the same level as his co-stars. In fact, it felt like the two ladies very frequently just ate him alive. I’ll admit that experience makes a difference – but that doesn’t mean I can get past the fact that it’s not a good performance. And with performances being so flawless from his two co-stars, his less-than work sticks out like a sore thumb.
The film as a whole fails to impress, ‘cause it never seems to get going. A beautiful (and yes, desolate) forest landscape, a tiny cast of four and deeply resonant characters – and yet your pacing is not great, you never build any real tension and repetition quickly becomes your enemy (I’m talking the filmmakers here).
The conundrum is that you care so much for these folks and you want them to stay safe, but when the you-know-what hits the fan – the film falls flat.
Part of the problem is that the hiker just isn’t that menacing. If anything, I felt the same as the characters initially did – mild annoyance and suspicion. But when he becomes dangerous (of course – and don’t go whining that it’s a spoiler – what else are you expecting to come of this?) your interest will quickly falter.
There’s also too much foreshadowing. When Jen has a long talk with Abby about some big future plans – you know you’re in for that old cliché of the grizzled old police detective, two days from retirement, going out on his final dangerous job. Talk of the future = a not-so-great next scene for a character. That’s offering sort of a spoiler, but anyone who can’t see this coming – you must have your movie-watching card revoked.
As for the repetition – if the film wasn’t so rich in lovely character backgrounds (all of which I would never in a million years cut) – it could have been trimmed into an honest-to-goodness short. As is, it’s only 78 minutes and it feels much longer. I get it – they’re walking in the woods… for the 15th scene in a row.
Technically, I enjoyed the camerawork and the score and there were no obvious distractions by the technical team. The core idea is to serve the story, not take away from it. And while that may sound vaguely mean that I didn’t notice specific camera tricks or music cues – it’s ultimately a lovely compliment.
However (there had to be a however, right?) – there is a horribly obvious continuity error. And not something that I can say, “Oh, it’s small, therefore forgivable”. No.
At one point (and suddenly out of nowhere) little Sam appears in a scene with a horribly bloody nose – as if he fell or as if someone smacked him in the face – almost like a broken nose injury. ???
Now, I can admit that I may have missed something in the film, but my husband (sitting right next to me for the screening) was also flummoxed by this sudden phantom injury. Either we both completely spaced or the filmmakers did. Something’s weird there.
It all boils down to how you would like to look at Desolation. As an acting piece – it’s pretty damn impressive (Paige and Ochse have oodles of brilliant scenes for their respective acting reels). For dialogue and character history – Desolation is a winner.
But as a horror film or a thriller – it’s not good. It stumbles, never creates real suspense and never goes faster than a few miles per hour.
Since the showing at LA Film Fest was Desolation’s World Premiere – no wider release information is yet available.