You could easily be forgiven for expecting Highway to Dhampus, a film set almost entirely in Nepal, to do what so many films have done by waxing eloquently about the nation's spiritual identity or lingering romantically on the nation's almost unfathomable beauty.
You would be wrong. While you may find yourself mumbling "Well, then. It must be about the nation's recent devastating earthquakes."
You would again be wrong.
The film, which had its U.S. Premiere at Indy's 2014 Heartland Film Festival and picked up the fest's prize for Narrative Feature Best Premiere, is getting close to wrapping up its successful festival run before a planned theatrical release in Fall 2015.
The first feature-length film to be shot almost entirely in Nepal by an American crew, Highway to Dhampus was filmed prior to this year's devastating earthquakes but to watch the film now it's hard not to reflect even more emotionally on the story that unfolds and the lives that are impacted on the big screen and in real life. Written and directed by Rick McFarland, Highway to Dhampus is far more than you might expect from a film set in Nepal and yet it is simultaneously much less.
It is much "less," because Highway to Dhampus is an intimate, deeply personal drama about a small group of people whose lives intersect in ways that ripple across the pond of life. Elizabeth (Rachel Hurd-Wood, Peter Pan and Tomorrow, When the War Began) is a rich socialite who arrives in Nepal alongside Colt Morgan (Gunner Wright, J. Edgar), a photojournalist sent along with her to document a series of charitable efforts she is to make in an effort to repair her recently damaged reputation. The two are escorted to an isolated orphanage by the area's most experienced pilot, Ajit (Nepali actor Raj Ballav Koirala). The orphanage's headmistress, Laxmi (Suesha Rana), quickly catches on to Elizabeth's less than sincere motives for the trip, though it becomes how these lives are intertwined that drives the energy and inspiration that guides Highway to Dhampus.
Highway to Dhampus is ultimately a lot of things. It's a film filled with universal themes that manifest themselves in mostly intimate ways. It's a film that captures the magnificent beauty of Nepal, yet isn't so enamored of it that it compromises its characters. Mostly, I suppose, Highway to Dhampus is a normal film about normal people living normal lives according to vastly different definitions of normalcy.
Elizabeth could have easily been turned into a social media caricature, yet as portrayed by Rachel Hurd-Wood she's fully alive and richly developed in ways that feel familiar yet don't seem based on any particular known public figure. She's sort of an amalgam of those people we've come to expect to pop up on social media a week after their latest public relations snafu. It's refreshing, however, that even among those who catch on to her "act" she's never demonized. I found myself thinking about a conversation I'd had with Paul Lazarus, director of the documentary Slingshot, where we were discussing a particular corporate sponsor of the potentially lifesaving project that serves as the subject of his film. The sponsor has long had a questionable reputation for corporate ethics, yet Lazarus was very quick to respond "This time, they're doing the right thing."
So it is with Elizabeth, who is given moments when that rich socialite comes to life and moments of quiet joy when she experiences unexpected connection and personal satisfaction at truly making a difference and ultimately surrendering her entire being to it.
What is love? What does it mean to make a difference? What is giving? These are questions at the heart of Highway to Dhampus and they are questions answered in different ways in the lives of the characters whom we come to care about by film's end. If I were to profess a favorite, I'd profess to a particular fondness for the gentle simplicity and relaxed service of Laxmi, brought authentically to life by the wonderful Suesha Rana. Nepali actor Raj Ballav Koirala is perhaps called upon to exhibit the widest range of emotions and experiences among the performers, yet he does so with such naturalism that any time he's on the screen you simply find yourself mesmerized. As a photojournalist dealing with his own issues, Gunner Wright is at his best in the film's emotionally satisfying final third.
Sam Cardon's original music serves as a perfect companion to McFarland's lensing of the film. There are times when you're watching Highway to Dhampus that you will be completely enthralled by both the beauty of the scenery and the film's quieter moments, such as a scene where Laxmi is watching the children receive toys. There are also times when you will be awestruck by the film's simplicity and Cardon's ability to bring that feeling to life vividly through its music.
Highway to Dhampus will be visiting the Hoosier state once again on 6/10 for a special benefit screening raising funds for Nepal's earthquake relief efforts. The screening is at 6:30pm at Franklin, Indiana's Historic Artcraft Theatre. Sponsored by Resurrection Lutheran Church, the screening will also play host to both McFarland and Koirala thanks to the support of the film's production company, Fiftyfilms.
For more information on Highway to Dhampus, be sure to visit the film's website linked to in the credits to the left of this review.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic