Usually when people are on the run from the law, they are in more of a hurry. As road movies go, this one makes The Straight Story feel like a breakneck thrill ride. Yet, there is no point in rushing for Sam (or maybe Jeremiah) and his [not]-brother Nick to rush about willy-nilly. They are really fleeing reality and it is bound to catch up with them eventually in Lauren Wolkstein & Christopher Radcliff’s The Strange Ones (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Something very bad happened to Sam’s father and both he and Nick were there when it happened. Is Nick really his brother? Clearly, we are being led to doubt it, so who is he anyway? Essentially, Wolkstein & Radcliff will tease out the answers to our what-the-heck questions over eighty-some minutes, even though they were able to wrap up the previous short film incarnation of Strange Ones in an economical fourteen minutes.
Eventually, Sam/Jeremiah winds up alone, or perhaps he always was anyway. Regardless, he seeks shelter in what initially looks like some sort of back-to-nature, outward-bound cult preying on children. Yet, the culty camp director seems to be the most accepting and responsible figure in the entire film. That is especially unsettling because he is played by Gene Jones, who totally rocked Ti West’s Jim Jones Peoples Temple-inspired The Sacrament.
Reality might very well be flimsy and ever-shifting in Strange Ones, but it isn’t even going for genre head-tripping thrills. Instead, it is deathly serious about Sam’s traumas. There is definitely a vibey, otherworldly kind of thing going on, greatly aided and abetted by cinematographer Todd Banhazi’s gossamer diffracted light, but it always keeps us on the outside, looking into Sam’s hermetically sealed world. It is a shame the film gets so wearying, because it squanders a dynamite, uncomfortably honest performance from Olivia Wang as Sam’s ambiguous school friend Sarah.
The festival circuit fell in love with James Freedson-Jackson’s lead performance, but we just don’t get it. The young Cop Car thesp certainly does what is asked of him, but mainly that entails moping and brooding. In contrast, Alex Pettyfer’s Nick is fascinating to watch, because he is so unpredictable. He nearly earns a pass for the entire picture with an incredible diner scene (you’ll know it when it happens).