As a kid growing up in America, you tend to learn the layout from one of those maps that isolates the United States from the rest of the world, like it’s the only country on the continent — maybe the only one on the planet. Looking at it that way, without the land being hugged by Quebec on one side and New Brunswick on the other, Maine always seemed like more of a destination than a place where people stayed permanently. It was the summit of a staircase formed by the whole of New England, the tip of a finger that pointed out into the great unknown and away from wherever you happened to live, or wherever you wanted to leave.
It’s a sad and romantic notion, but the characters in Matthew Brown’s (“In the Treetops”) “Maine” are sad and romantic people. In fact, that’s all they are for much of this spare, outdoorsy story about a pair of sullen hikers who meet on the trail and wrestle with their solitudes together. Unformed but deeply understanding, this super lo-fi two-hander is too sketchy to sustain itself all the way to the Pine Tree State, but it finds all sorts of promise along the way.
Bluebird (“Victoria” star Laia Costa) is a Spanish woman in her early thirties who likes to skinny-dip in the ocean and pretend that she doesn’t want any company. Most of her dialogue is some variation of “I need no one, and it’s okay.” She isn’t big on smiling. Lake (Thomas Mann, the towhead “me” from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), is a twentysomething kid who can’t hide how happy he is to cross paths with a pretty girl in the wilderness. He’s a lot more upbeat than Bluebird — these are “trail names,” by the way — but he’s similarly in denial about something.
We learn his secret much sooner than we do hers, and so this two-hander starts to feel like Lake’s film, rendering him the subject and Bluebird his direct object. The scenario would feel like a basic male fantasy if not for the fact that these characters are both too wounded to touch each other without flinching. There are plenty of stolen looks, and a handful of under-lit drunken confessionals by the campfire, but the tension seldom gets any hotter than some talk about “Wayne’s World” and a sultry rendition of the theme song from “Spongebob Squarepants.”
“Maine” is shot with supple intimacy, and conveyed through the seemingly improvised chatter of two wayward people who know where they’re going, but not necessarily what they’re hoping to find when they get there. Simple, but never ugly, the film conveys the hopeful green expanse of New Hampshire without encouraging its characters to romanticize it further. It even resists the temptation to celebrate this sort of frontier culture, or suggest that it’s somehow purer than life on the grid; Lake and Bluebird seldom cross paths with other people, and their most pivotal interaction with a large group of other hikers is an awkward, even hostile conversation.
Confirming what his debut suggested, Brown has a deep interest in — and a keen understanding of — exiles and runaways. His first feature was a micro-budget drama about a group of kids driving around in the dark, desperate not to go home. His second deepens the stakes and draws from the environment, sacrificing urgency for texture as it meanders towards Canada. Bluebird and Lake are believable human beings, even (and perhaps especially) when they’re a little boring. They mumble and misfire and reluctantly discuss what drove them to abandon the lives they left behind. Their struggles are easier to relate to than they are to appreciate.
Brown waits them out, hoping that his talented actors will eventually just pull what they need from one another, but his script fails to sharpen their interactions in a meaningful way, leaving Costa and Mann to pull us along on the strength of the dynamic between them. Together, this unlikely pair engage in a compelling tug-of-war between withdrawal and codependence, as each character uses the other’s companionship to determine whether or not they’re better off alone. Bluebird, by design, remains the more compelling of the two. She thinks of her attraction to Lake as a weakness of sorts, and often goes out of her way to emphasize that she’d be just fine on her own. She tells him that “I started hiking with you because I wanted, not because I needed,” failing to conceal that she’s really talking to herself.
Costa does as much as she can to cut a real figure from the vagaries of what Brown is willing to indicate about her character, but she continues to be underserved by English-language filmmakers. In “Victoria,” she was a force of nature. In films like “Maine” and “Newness,” she’s flattened into a coquettish screen, and asked to pout while the male lead projects his desire onto her. It’s not Mann’s fault that Bluebird is far more compelling in the scenes where she flies solo — it’s like she’s finally been uncaged.
“I just want to make it,” she says to her trail buddy. “I just want to go there and make it.” In the wake of a devastating trauma, Bluebird can’t be with someone else until she proves to herself that she can be alone. If only her focus on the destination weren’t making it so hard for her to appreciate the journey, or confront the reasons why she feels so beckoned to the top of the country. On the other hand, perhaps some people have to go there themselves to see that the maps got it wrong, and Maine isn’t a dead end after all.
“Maine” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution