Most road trip movies are formulaic, particularly indie road trip flicks. Therefore, it is up to each filmmaker to ensure their take on what have become clichés will standout from the rest as worth watching.
Mercer (Lou Taylor Pucci) is our naïve, soulful protagonist who impulsively sets out on a road trip through the south in search of his half-brother Arlen (Jsu Garcia), who he has not seen in over a decade. The reason for his sudden need of sibling companionship is the death of their mother eight months earlier, of which Mercer needs to inform his brother. His search begins in Eugene, Oregon and clues to his brother’s whereabouts leads Mercer to Reno, Nevada; Mojave, California; Sacramento, California; and finally Ensenada, Mexico. But he soon realizes that Arlen has left little but hard feelings and ruins in his wake. Along the way, Mercer meets a string of oddball characters, including Joely (Jena Malone), a wild pixie that he went to middle school with; a pornographer with teen stars who calls himself Sergio Leone (Julio Oscar Mechoso); a convicted drug dealer (Maura Tierney) who owns a pet store and plays music for children as part of her community service; and a daunting liquor salesman (Bill Duke) who lectures Mercer on self-defence. He is also joined at first in spirit, and eventually in-person, by the mysterious voice on a cell phone that came with the car. The voice belongs to the car’s owner Kate (Zooey Deschanel), who promises not to call the police as long as Mercer maintains their flirty repartee and keeps her updated on his journey.
The road trip checklist is complete: cute and soulful leading man-boy; ethereal woman to show him the way; eccentric encounters; plenty of landscape; drab cinematography; and an indie-rock soundtrack. But each element is noteworthy and done well. Pucci returns to the character he played in Thumbsucker, but he fits the bill and appears at home in Mercer’s headspace. Even as a disconnected voice, Deschanel’s individuality and spirit shines through and is substantiated when she physically enters the picture. Malone is convincingly impish but she sometimes seems more mean-spirited than her character requires. The saturated scenery passes by the car’s windows and envelopes the characters as they get closer to their goal. M. Ward’s music complements the dreamlike narrative tone flawlessly. And it is Ward’s collaboration with Deschanel on “When I Get to the Border” for the film’s soundtrack that gave way to the formation of the musical duo She & Him.
The references to Leone and Jean-Luc Godard speak to director/writer Martin Hynes’ film literacy but are not necessary to the story. Rather, his understanding of the formula and ability to make it worth watching speaks for itself. The dialogue is filled with everyday wit, grounding the surreal situations.
The special features are disappointedly meagre totalling 10 minutes of “20 questions with Michael Hynes” and test footage, plus the theatrical trailer. The feature commentary provides an in-depth look at Hynes’ personal influences for the semi-autobiographical tale as well as location details. On the upside, the DVD does include a digital copy of the film that can be transferred to your video-capable portable device.