In the middle of a row of decrepit and abandoned mobile homes that look like the beginnings of the post-apocalypse, a group of carefree teenagers sit in a circle in the middle of its isolated road, where nature is forcing itself back through the cracks of the asphalt. As one of the teenagers creates a massive soda and candy concoction known as Suicide Soda, another attempts to explain the mysteries of the universe using gumdrops as props. We’ve all been there, congregating with friends in our early teens, wistfully pondering the ins and outs of our existence.
The boy, named Will (William Dickerson), uses a gumdrop to represent Sunset Edge, the abandoned small town they’re now crashing, and how insignificant it is to North Carolina, where Sunset Edge exists, as a whole. To him, North Carolina, as well as Earth itself, is another insignificant gumdrop in the middle of a vast and uncaring universe. Yet the existence of the teenagers in that moment matters, just like the tragic past of Sunset Edge matters to those who fled from it like a nightmare they’d like to erase from their memories.
Writer/director Daniel Peddle’s “Sunset Edge” is meditative and introspective DIY filmmaking at its finest. It’s a nearly dialogue-free visual exploration of youth’s complex relationship with the unforgiving laws of nature. Yes, it deals with outcasts living in the fringes of the unknown or willfully forgotten sections of the South, but it doesn’t look down on its characters and treats them like freaks in a side show like Harmony Korine’s early work, nor does it drench them in unfounded mysticism like the overrated “Beasts of the Southern Wild” did.
These teenagers, who are portrayed by non-professionals from the area where “Sunset Edge” was filmed, are shown just the way they are, equally familiar and unique, and still fully connected to the rest of the world. The closest thematic connection I could think of was David Gordon Green’s sublime “George Washington”. “Sunset Edge” plays out like a version of Green’s first feature with less dialogue and focus on plot and character, if that was even possible, with a dash of Terrence Malick’s elegant visual treatment of nature thrown in.
The film is split evenly into three sections. The first part shows the teenagers crashing Sunset Edge in order to aimlessly kill time; skateboarding and discovering the haunting remnants of the mobile homes. Even though they seem to occupy a relatively unknown piece of land off the grid, Peddle makes sure that the teenagers are always connected to technology. They take pictures of decomposing clothes, furniture, and various knick-knacks with their smart phones and text them to each other. When one of the kids loses his phone in the middle of the forest, he freaks out as if he’s lost a limb. Peddle shows us that this is a different version of the Deep South, one that’s connected to the mainstream yet still able to retain its character.
The deliberate aimlessness of the first section leads into a minor mystery, as an unknown figure starts stealing the kids’ possessions. This leads us to the second section, which, if taken by itself as a short, is a mini-masterpiece in pure visual storytelling. We meet Malachi (Gilberto Padilla); a lonely, socially-awkward teen who was adopted by his grandfather (Jack Horn) after the aforementioned tragedy in Sunset Edge turned him into an orphan. One morning, Malachi finds out that his grandfather has passed on, and decides to discover his past by visiting Sunset Edge. Via very simple visual cues and quick flashbacks, Peddle expertly constructs Malachi’s surprisingly deep and layered emotional journey through his tragic past.
By the time we get to the third section, where the first two parts begin to converge, Peddle seems to be aware that he has stretched the limits of his meager story and some fat begins to show in an otherwise meticulously paced film. He spends too much time showing the audience how the teenagers got to Sunset Edge, which works more like a music video that could have easily been edited out, then he repeats the visual style of the first section without adding anything new. That is, until we get to the subdued yet surprisingly emotional climax.
The biggest selling point of “Sunset Edge” is the beautiful digital cinematography by Karim Lopez. The recent advancements in digital video technology have allowed no-budget filmmakers to capture stunning images in high resolution. However, one still has to know where to point the camera, and how. With his subtle handheld camera that gives the perfect amount of a documentary feel without becoming obnoxiously shaky, and his perfectly symmetrical approach to nature shots, Lopez manages to make “Sunset Edge” look like a multi-million dollar production.
This is one of those minimalist efforts where the entire screenplay can fit into a log line. I predict that any member of the audience looking for a traditional narrative will be bored to tears. But if you let yourself go and let Peddle and his teens take you on a contemplative and thoughtful journey through Sunset Edge, you will be rewarded [B+]