Marking the directorial debut of production designer Tom S. Hammock (“You’re Next,” “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”), it’s hardly a surprise to note that “The Well” has a stunningly well-designed sense of place, whether the huddled hideaways or sun-seared expanses are both required of the film’s ruined world.
Years after something’s broken the world — and a decade since the last rain — “The Well” takes place in what used to be the Oregon Valley, now a dry desert. Kendal (Hayley Lu Richardson) is still trying to survive at the orphanage where she was a child, along with fellow holdout Dean (Boo Boo Stewart); their well, superbly hidden and maintained, provides them with just enough water to live. But their silence and exile and cunning is meaningless when Carson (Jon Gries), representative of “The Company,” has his derricks suck the aquifer under the valley dry while rounding up — and wiping out — holdouts like Kendal.
Like “The Rover” or “The Time of the Wolf,” “The Well” isn’t a post-apocalypse full of monsters or myths about the world we lost; it’s a recent loss, with people clinging to dignity and decency as fiercely as they hang on to mementoes and loved ones. Written by Hammock and Jacob Foreman, “The Well” plays (as so many dramas in the post-apocalypse do) in part as a Western thanks to a combination of moral and geographic terrain. Kendal isn’t a badass — her survival strategy seems to be “hide until you can’t” — and that reality is echoed in what she and her fellow survivors say as they part: “Stay lucky.”
Considering how fearlessly — and how well — “The Well” uses its archetypes, it’s to the film’s credit that it never descends into cliché or familiarity. As Carson, Jon Gries — a familiar character actor who takes on a very different cast and mien here — depicts the reluctant brutality of any company man — and rationalizes it as all being for his daughter Brooke (Nicole Fox.) It’d be easy to make jokes about Fox and how her past as a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model” clearly prepared her for kill-or-be-killed dramatics, but the fact is she’s terrific in the part — a new step down in human evolution, grown from the unforgiving soil of this new time to survive at all cost and enjoy it.
Richardson, at the center of the film, is excellent — just as good as she is in the very different L.A. Film Festival comedy “The Young Kieslowski,” in fact — and brings Kendal to life as someone whose compassion and plan to get out of the Valley are her strength and weakness. (As an older survivor, played by the great Barbara Crampton, notes, “You still have faith…that’s good.”) But she’s also as scared as she is brave, and as torn by her humanity as she is improved by it. (Her relationship with Albie (Max Charles) — a young boy hiding on his own — is, for but one example, far more complex than Kendal’s initial seeming kindness makes it look at first.)
Hammock’s direction is superb; every moment of every scene matters, and the film shifts between action and drama superbly. Cinematographer Seamus Tierney also deserves kudos; considering how many scenes in the film incorporate both dark hiding places and the sun-razed landscape around them, the shots are always clean, clear and, in their way, beautiful. “The Well” has its pleasures and powers, as well as a distinctive take on what could have been familiar, dead material; Hammock may have begun his career making worlds for other directors, but given a chance to create his own here, he not only succeeds but excels.
“The Well” premiered this week at the L.A. Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.