A clunky but poignant drama that was made with the support of AT&T and the Tribeca Festival, Nardeep Khurmi’s “Land of Gold” effectively distills the post-apocalyptic horrors of “The Last of Us” into a road movie about two brown Americans trying to survive the long drive across today’s United States.
Instead of traveling West from Boston to Salt Lake City, our reluctant Punjabi hero and his precocious Latina stowaway make their way East from California to Maine; instead of zombified fungus monsters who hunger for human flesh, the film’s surrogate father-daughter duo are forced to navigate 3,000 equally dangerous miles of overeager ICE agents and suspicious white convenience store clerks.
If contrived plotting and clumsy dialogue leave Khurmi’s quasi-neorealist debut feeling almost as fanciful as HBO’s mushroom holocaust, the bond that it forges between a truck driver and his human cargo is held together by a rich tapestry of well-worn truths. Both of these first-generation immigrants were brought to this country by parents who were promised a better life for their children, and both of them have come to feel betrayed by the shared dream they inherited like a destiny.
In the face of a hostile and uncertain world, these two strangers may be the only people capable of restoring each other’s faith in the future; what they ultimately offer each other rings hollow, but their mutual need for it bleeds right off the screen.
In stark contrast to the grieving father whose long-ago loss drives the story of “The Last of Us,” Kiran Singh (played by Khurmi himself) is an imminent father-to-be whose fear of the future — specifically that of repeating his own dad’s mistakes — has caused him to disengage from his daughter before she’s even born. Despite promising his very pregnant wife (Pallavi Sastry as Preeti) that he wouldn’t take on any more trucking jobs until after the baby is born, Kiran jumps at the first chance he gets to stick his wife with his traditional Sikh mother (Riti Sachdeva) and haul some random stuff across the country before “it” arrives.
Is it true that he needs the money? The trappings of a comfortably middle-class lifestyle would suggest otherwise, but there’s no such thing as financial peace of mind for someone who was raised in the shadow of their parents’ hardships. Besides, Kiran can smoke in his truck, and the open road is the perfect place for a man on the cusp of fatherhood to reflect on the pressures he might be about to pass down. Kiran’s father once beamed that “the whole world will be yours, and I will give it to you,” and now — with his old man (Iqbal Theba) confined to flashbacks — Kiran feels the weight of that world falling squarely atop his shoulders. One generation’s brightest hopes become the next generation’s heaviest burdens.
In that light, it often works to the film’s advantage that Khurmi’s heartfelt but high-strung lead performance burns with the ultra-specific desperation of someone trying to will his first movie together, even if Kiran steers through a handful of key moments with a clenched distress that undercuts their drama. Less helpful is that Khurmi’s overwritten script distrusts its audience to read between the lines, as many of the scenes between Kiran and his pint-sized passenger are choked with petulant banter that squeezes the life out of both characters.
“Land of Gold” is hardly 10 minutes old before Kinan discovers a dehydrated pre-teen girl named Elena (Caroline Valencia) hiding in the cargo hold of his truck, and the conflict binding them together is contrived from the start. The first thing Kiran does is to drag the girl to an Arizona police station — he correctly assumes she’s undocumented, but also doesn’t even seem to care about his own daughter — only to think twice when they arrive at the exact moment some cops are cruelly hauling another immigrant inside. After that, he resigns to drive Elena to her uncle’s house in Maine, taking the fast-talking 10-year-old at her word that her parents are at peace with it. Maybe Kiran shouldn’t have kids after all.
His decision proves to be a potentially fatal mistake, both for these characters and the film around them. Obscuring Elena’s actual circumstances makes it difficult to believe the reality of the montage-driven bond that she forms with her scraggly new chauffeur, and the rare moments when Khurmi chooses to pump the brakes are so over-inflated with dramatic purpose that watching them borders on rubber-necking.
For a film that proves effective at tracing the ambient tensions of moving through America as a person of color, it’s frustrating that “Land of Gold” takes every shortcut it can find along its eastward route. Even touching detours — such as the sequence when Kiran and Elena pause to compare their religious faiths at an Oklahoma truck stop, and to note the historic connection between the Mexican American and Punjabi American communities — suffer from a tendency to reverse-engineer each scene from a teachable moment, as if Khurmi had envisioned his script through the wrong end of the small telescope that Kiran carries with him wherever he goes.
But the most frustrating thing about Kiran’s choice is the gradual realization that “Land of Gold” would have been a richer and more powerful film if Khurmi hadn’t pressured its everyday tragedies into an over-plotted melodrama. While Kiran may worship the infinite, Khurmi denies him the chance to explore it. Rather than confront his powerlessness to help Elena — and use it as a lens through which Kiran might forgive his own father’s failure to give his family the future he promised them — “Land of Gold” muddies its message by speeding towards a third act filled with new characters, surprising reveals, and devastating heartaches. This story begs for a dash of the poetic neorealism captured by the phosphorus glow of Christopher Low’s digital cinematography (I half-expected its characters to make a pitstop in Paris, Texas), but its telling errs closer to the gloss of network TV.
And yet, given the nature of Kiran’s neuroses, it’s easy to forgive “Land of Gold” for trying to do too much with the opportunity at its disposal. Few debut features brim with such feeling, and even fewer reflect such an urgent need to solve a lifetime of inherited trauma in the span of a single film, as if their director may never get a second chance. The bittersweet final moments of this first movie, in which “Land of Gold” elegantly reconciles the hopes that Kiran has for his daughter with the heartache that he received from his parents, find Khurmi making the most of a chance several generations in the making.
“Land of Gold” opens in limited release on Friday, May 5, before streaming on Max on Friday, May 12.