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SUNDANCE REVIEW: HERE

The Bottom Line

If a road trip through the rugged Armenian hinterlands sounds like it might generate only intermittent pleasures, it does.

Venue:

Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Competition

Cast:

Ben Foster, Lubna Azabal, Narek Nersisyan, Yuri Kostanyan, Sophik Sarkisyan

Director:

Braden King

PARK CITY – (U.S. Dramatic Competition) The subtle calibrations of Ben Foster’s performance give "HERE" an intriguing center. But Braden King’s meandering semi-experimental road movie about two travelers whose paths briefly converge is too enraptured by its own dusty exoticism.

Hatched out of a non-narrative multimedia piece that screened in Sundance’s 2008 New Frontier section and was subsequently developed through the festival’s feature lab, the film bumps into some interesting ideas. It explores the process by which experience becomes memory, how the physical becomes intangible, how land – be it home or terra incognita – can yield both truth and deception. Ultimately, however, these reflections never acquire the weight to be much more than artsy embellishment on a two-dimensional story of fleeting romance between underwritten characters.

Those protagonists are Will (Foster), an American satellite-mapping engineer under contract in Armenia, and Gadarine (Lubna Azabal), an expatriate photographer back in her homeland on an arts grant and faced with her family’s ambivalence toward her fledgling success abroad.

After parallel glimpses of these solitary outsiders, they meet in a restaurant. A second chance encounter cements the bond, and Gadarine suggests she accompany Will to the remote borders and to a disputed territory within Azerbaijan where she has always wanted to shoot.

King and his co-writer Dani Valent appear to be aiming for a dreamy Lost in Translation vibe, but they neglect to anchor the mood piece by giving substance or depth to their central characters.

Despite the humor and heart Foster breathes into the role, Will’s function is too heavyhandedly symbolic – a mapmaking wanderer in search of definition. Azabal has a nice naturalistic ease in front of the camera, and some lovely interludes with Gadarine’s parents. But the character is more or less Will’s schematic opposite – a woman who has distanced herself from her roots and is now rediscovering them.

The film captures some impressive landscapes and layers an eclectic mix of original and traditional Armenian music over its unhurried travel time. But unless you count doing a lot of vodka shots, this is a dramatically uneventful two hours. No significant conflict surfaces until roughly 90 minutes in, when an unpleasant brush with border military officials, a nasty hangover and a minor road accident sour the romance.

The chief carryovers from the project’s trans-media evolution are experimental interludes by various filmmakers, accompanied by ponderous voiceovers from Foster on the poetics of scientists and explorers. Some of these are quite beautiful, notably a fast-moving collage of film frames that suggests Gadarine dreaming back through the generations. Elsewhere they feel inorganic to the film.

Like the all-upper case title (which is almost as irritating as all-lower case), the abstract imagery adds little and smacks of affectation.

Screenwriters: Braden King, Dani Valent
Producers: Braden King, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy
Executive producer: Julia King
Director of photography: Lol Crawley
Production designer:  Richard A. Wright
Music: Michael Krassner, Boxhead Ensemble
Editors: David Barker, Andrew Hafitz, Paul Zucker
Interlude filmmakers: Daichi Saito, Garine Torossian, Paul Clipson, Julie Murray
Sales: Preferred Content, K5 International
No rating, 121 minutes