An uneven, but still strangely appealing, look at mortality, second chances and family dysfunction, the SXSW indie “Sequoia” may resemble a less joyful, arguably more honest version of the “Little Miss Sunshine” narrative, but it still has its own charms despite having many disagreeable characters.
Reilly is one of them (Aly Michalka, perhaps best remembered as Emma Stone’s squeaky best friend in “Easy A“). A young, beautiful 23-year-old, she should have her whole life ahead of her. But she’s moody, sarcastic and cynical for good reason: mortally debilitating obstacles rest heavy on Reilly’s soul. She’s reached a stage three level of sarcoma carcinoma mouth cancer. And so, with the situation looking bleak (the removal of her lower jaw being an option if she reaches stage four), she decides to pack it all in with one last trip to Sequoia National Park.
But Reilly’s planned suicide isn’t going very well. Her intended spot at Sequoia National Park is closed off, her estranged family is driving up to stop her and the handsome, optimistic, young man who she met on the bus ride there is having a hard time trying to not change her perspective on life.
The feature-length directorial debut of Andy Landen (written by Andrew Rothschild), “Sequoia” is not an unfamiliar indie film, but credit the filmmakers for not rounding off the edges of its difficult and prickly characters. Reilly, for one, is interestingly written. She appears initially as a self-centered California brat, smoking despite her cancer, video-taping her pill-popping stunt as a way to get back at her estranged mother (Joey Lauren Adams) and generally having a sour disposition. One gets the feeling that if she was cancer-free, she would be a mighty big handful to date, let alone parent. But as the movie reveals itself, all her issues just act as a mask; underneath her prickly façade Reilly is terrified of dying and resentful in life for having such a negligent and broken family.
Two narratives play out in parallel, Reilly with her wagging-tail puppy boy in tow at the National Park and the fractured ad-hoc family on a reluctant rescue mission. And the latter is their own eccentric and interesting gang who explain much about the protagonist’s already-damaged outlook on life via their petty actions and nasty behavior.
And speaking of unlikable characters at SXSW, this crew is also unpleasant, but all their behavior feels organic and as if it comes from an honest place (though admittedly, they’re all a little shrill too). Joey Lauren Adams is convincing as the tired, emotionally spent mother who doesn’t have time for her daughter’s perennially difficult cry-for-help antics. And as her new lover, Demetri Martin is equally credible in the part of the psychiatrist asshole boyfriend coaching Adams’ character to be less enabling. Relative newcomers Sophi Bairley (“The Poker House”) as her younger sister and Todd Lowe (of “True Blood,” who has the rugged appeal of a younger James Remar) as her mostly deadbeat, but still caring dad, also feel natural and believable too.
Unfortunately, the movie tends to falter at its core story which goes predictably romantic, and a little bit overly sentimental and obvious. The boy Reilly meets on the bus to Sequoia National Park, Ogden (Dustin Milligan of “Slither“), turns out to be a goofily optimistic and earnestly religious. Sure, he’s a narrative tool of positivity to change her perspective and perhaps add some sunshine to the superficially dark movie, but his aw-shucks overly-sincere attitude and heartfelt indie banjo playing is pretty cloying. At the same time, one supposes they can understand how someone like Reilly would be attracted to all his deficiencies (which she’s at least very aware of and finds endearing in her own way). He wants her to embrace living and continue to fight the disease while she argues all the reasons she has little to live for in the first place, and their dynamic continues like that.
But acknowledgement is due for Aly Michalka’s character and performance which is pitched just right. The movie never begs you to sympathize with her, she’s still self-absorbed enough to not be wholly likable, and the performance doesn’t round off her prickly edges.
Featuring a cameo by Lou Diamond Phillips as an HIV-positive mystic figure who comes to pray to the immense General Sherman trees that inhabit Sequoia National Park, Reilly needs something to live for, and little by little she finds her reasons. Therefore, at the end of the day, the film is a fairly conventional story of hope and love, etc., but where the movie still succeeds is its persuasive and often humorous portrait of caustic family dynamics.
There’s still a few indie precious elements of “Sequoia” especially in the “romance” section that are largely bothersome and unsurprising (does anyone from second one think these two quarreling kids aren’t ultimately going to get together?). But despite a narrative that takes you to recognizable places and conventional revelations, “Sequoia” (somewhat ironically and contradictingly) has strong, well-defined characters that clash in compelling ways that ring true. Imperfect, but still engaging, “Sequoia” is perhaps best defined by its final scene; the family continuing to argue ceaselessly while Ogden plays some obnoxiously earnest indie folk banjo tune over top. It may be a bit much, but at least the ugly truths aren’t totally erased in favor of wrapping up everything nicely in a perfect bow. [B-]