Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wilderness Survival for Girls (2004)

Directed by:  Eli B. Despares and Kim Roberts
Starring:  Jeanette Brox, Megan Henning, Ali Humiston, and James Morrison
Release date:  2004

This movie can best be described as Deliverance for teen girls.  Secrets, friendship, survival, and morality are the main themes in both films, while fighting the fears brought on by the natural environment. Two lifelong friends, upper middle classers Ruth and Debbie, take their new, wilder friend Kate to Ruth's parents' cabin along the continental divide for the weekend.  It's been 8 years since anyone's been to the cabin.  Eight years ago, two girls in the "neighborhood" of wealthy cabin-owners were murdered by a man who was never caught, leaving the families afraid the murderer was lurking in the forest all that time.

With no cell phone reception and no occupied cabins close by, the girls prepare for a night of pot smoking, story telling, and beer drinking to celebrate their upcoming graduation from high school.  Early tensions begin to bubble as the girls hint to each other about hidden feelings, petty jealousies, and back-stabbing confidences.  Their last hurrah is shattered when a man enters the cabin, claiming to have been squatting there for 8 years.
The performances are all solid.  The actresses fit their parts very well.  One pet peeve of mine is when a movie maker attempts to fit girls into roles they have no business playing.  That isn't the case here.  Although the device of having friends of different backgrounds and different personalities thrown together for survival is a bit tiresome, especially the way it is usually done with girls, this one handles the situation a bit more delicately.  Kate, the wild child, goes a bit overboard on the costuming props (pink streaked hair, tramp stamp tattoo, etc.), for the most part the personas of the girls are well crafted.

The directors/writers, married team Eli Despares and Kim Roberts, are not very experienced with feature films.  Kim has editing and writing credits on many documentaries, including Food, Inc. and Waiting for Superman. 

Jeanette Brox (Ruth) does a wonderful job as the more mousey of the three.  However, she speaks always in a whisper and I had to turn the sound up to hear her, and she looks like someone squished Renee Zelweiger down and taught her to act.  Brox has mostly TV credits to her name with just a few feature films, but is easily the best in this group and the pivot around which the other characters revolve.  Incidentally, Brox won the Los Angeles IFP/West Film Festival award for Outstanding Performance in this film.

Megan Henning (Debbie) also has mostly TV credits, including Mad Men more recently.  At the time of this movie she was 26 years old but played a very convincing 17 year old with sexual orientation issues.

Ali Humiston (Kate), is the least experienced and I thought the strongest performance.  She has such roles to her name as Baton Twirler in an Olson Twins movie and Teddy Bear Fan (uncredited) in Colin Fitz Lives.

James Morrison (the stranger) is very realistic as the mountain man.  Bill Buchanan from 24 is one of the many notable TV roles for the former circus tight rope walker.  Interestingly, he is also a stage actor, yoga instructor, and film maker.

There are some interesting touches to this film.  One is the cinamatography.  Camera angles give this basic film a rather unsettling sensation, adding what I felt was a touch of sophistication. Close-ups, views from the ceiling looking downward on the entire room, and corner shots keep the viewer a bit unsettled, almost creating a feeling of unfamiliarity and nervousness that the characters were likely feeling themselves.

Another touch that leapt out at me was the stranger's hand.  In one scene he ghosts his hand down Ruth's arm, under her clasped hands, while the camera focuses up close on her hands.  When his fingers become visible from beneath hers, they are not just regular hands, or smeared with some dirt or make-up.  They have ground in blackness around the nails.  Not loose, as if they were a movie prop, but as if he had actually been in the forest for 8 years.  Many impressive little details like this add to the reality of the story.

Terrified that the man is the killer of the girls 8 years ago, the three friends decide to take matters into their own hands, despite their brewing differences and unsteady alliances.  Stranded and with no telephone, their fears and personal hauntings begin to take hold.

Other than a conversation about masturbation, a lesbian kissing scene, and a brief topless sunbathing scene, the movie is appropriate for teens, while still having enough tension to keep older audiences interested.  My only criticism with the film is that I would have added a bit more struggle with nature, because of the name of the film and it being a major theme that is not fully exploited.
Definitely give this one a watch.  It's worth the time. Most ratings I've seen for this movie are fairly low, but I did not agree with them.  It's a very well put-together little film and at 78 minutes it doesn't drag on too long.  Some of the remarks I've read about it include the ridiculous decisions made by the characters.  However, having been one of the irrational creatures known as teenaged girls, I found their actions and decisions quite age- and experience-appropriate.

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