There are films that happen, on occasion, to which you find yourself simply surrendering. Sometimes, it is their story. Sometimes, it is their characters. Sometimes, it is the atmosphere or the lensing or the design or simply a world created that allows you to forget about the fact that you're sitting in a movie theatre and immerse yourself in its cinematic world.
West of Her, currently screening at the 2016 Indy Film Fest, is such a film.
Written and directed by Ethan Warren, West of Her has been appropriately described by some audiences and critics as a weaving together of Malick meets road flick, a description that only begins to hint at West of Her's stunningly picturesque lensing from Cameron Bryson and a story by Warren that creates two compelling and fully realized characters who are destined to linger in your psyche' long after the closing credits.
Dan (Ryan Caraway) and Jane (Kelsey Siepser) are an odd couple of sorts, Dan being a loner without as much as a human connection who is aligned with Jane, herself a mysterious young woman with a mysterious past, as the two traverse the country finding appropriate placements for small, inspirational tiles that are, in fact, modeled after a real life mystery from the late 1980's involving the placement of the Tromso Tiles.
The tiles matter here, though if you're thinking this is some quirky, gimmicky film you should think again. West of Her is a character-driven film, a film about two people who almost miraculously find each other and almost miraculously connect and, perhaps not so miraculously, are changed by that connection. Paired anonymously, a "working relationship" becomes more revealing over time, though Dan always suspects that Jane isn't being as transparent.
Both Caraway and Siepser are strong here, though it would be impossible to deny that Siepser gives a revelatory performance here that begs to be seen and deserves to open some doors for the 2013 USC School of Dramatic Arts MFA graduate. If there's a mistake frequently made in a film such as West of Her, it's in failing to breathe life into its meditative spirit. Warren doesn't make that mistake and much of that credit goes to Siepser for a performance that is luminous and honest even amidst the seeming lack of transparency. It's a finely nuanced, brilliantly realized performance that makes you lament when she departs the screen.
This is not to say that Caraway, tasked with playing a more grounded and melancholy character, isn't strong. Indeed, he is. Tis' an art to play such a character without histrionics and to also balance with a performance on the opposite end of the spectrum. Caraway does so quite beautifully, and while the film does experience a rather dramatic, perhaps too dramatic, shift without Siepser, Caraway's performance remains strong and resonant.
Filmed in real life over a 4,000 mile journey, West of Her is a mesmerizingly beautiful film that, I'd dare say, benefits from being a lower budgeted film because a higher budget may very well have distracted from the film's natural beauty. The festival darling has picked up Best Narrative Feature prizes at Scruffy City Film and Music Festival, Santa Cruz Film Festival and Intendence Film Festival, while also screening at Film Festival of Columbus and this week's Indy Film Fest among others.
West of Her will screen in Indianapolis on July 17th at 1:15 pm at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Toby Theatre and on July 19th at 5pm at the same theatre. For information on tickets, visit the Indy Film Festival website.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic