There exists an ever present pull within the independent film world to reach far beyond one’s grasp.
This is no secret.
In fact, it’s led to some of the finest debuts in cinema history; The 400 Blows (Truffaut), The Evil Dead (Raimi), El Mariachi (Rodriguez). But while it can yield fruitful rewards, it’s also extremely rare.
In such a crowded marketplace one needs to stand out, but at the same time it’s so easy for a director’s hubris to get in the way of a films natural melody.
Like most things, it’s about finding a balance. Trying to shoot a special effects laced debut might sound great on paper, but in practice that lack of funds or personal prowess can create a massive stumbling block, leading films to come off looking cheap.
Ambition is a wonderful thing, but craftsmanship and confident filmmaking can also count for a ton these days.
In the case of Ethan Warren’s debut West of Her, he encapsulates the exact kind of micro-budget filmmaking I like to see from first time directors.
Instead of investing his limited funds in possible spectacle, Warren manages to focus his energies on telling a creative love story with a whiff of science fiction influence.
The basic premise is as follows: A mysterious organization matches up willing participants looking for love/friendship/something.
In a cool play on the flourishing world of online dating, strangers are paired off and left to travel around setting small place cards covered with riddled writings.
As our two participants journey to different locations, the pair can either decide to move on…or assuming they fall in love, leaving the “experiment” and living life together.
Fortunately Warren doesn’t bog the film down with a monstrous load of exposition. The organization is never fully explained, only speculated at by the director’s other ace in the hole, his actors.
West of Her’s main focus is on Dan (Ryan Caraway) and Jane (Kelsey Siepser), both of whom have varied reasons for joining in this little adventure.
Jane has been in the experiment longer than Dan, who is a first timer, and obviously smitten by his new impromptu mentor. Jane seems to have a more realistic ideal of what she is looking for with this, but has obviously yet to find it. Dan is more the dreamer of the pair, swept away by the romance of the whole idea.
Caraway and Siepser are easily amongst the finest actors I’ve encountered so far in reviewing smaller independent films.
It would be one thing if the two were so charismatic as individuals, but the fact that they possess such an obvious and likable chemistry is truly film’s ultimate strength.
Of course, the film isn’t perfect. Few things are, especially debut features.
While I found the thematics and dynamics of the relationship enganging, when it came to the plot and arc in itself, it’s something we’ve seen plenty of times before. Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy first sprung to mind and also the underrated film, In the Land of Women.
Despite the by the numbers plot, the unique take on online dating and how people communicate is a resonant and relevant theme.
It’s other plot strength is it’s ending.
It doesn’t cop out to sappy romance or reconciliation, which was refreshing and made the film more memorable.
West of Her is currently making the rounds at film festivals but hopefully it will get picked up for distribution. We will definitely keep things updated!
★★★ Despite a familiar plot, West of Her manages to distinguish itself from the usual indie romances with a subtle thematic twist, strong chemistry of characters, and a keen eye for cinematography.