Inexperience and carelessness lead to life-threatening situations in the rather literally titled backwoods thriller Body at Brighton Rock, Roxanne Benjamin’s first solo feature after co-directing anthology titles Southbound and XX. Following a SXSW debut in March, this mildly involving indie could struggle to find as receptive a theatrical audience as that notably genre-dominant festival, although streamers may ultimately provide a more appreciative showcase.
At the fictional Brighton Rock Recreational Area, located in a region of the country that looks authentically northeastern, many of the staffmembers are 20ish part-time summer park guides. Relegated to educating schoolkids and performing menial labor, they’re several rungs below the rank of full-fledged ranger Sandra (Miranda Bailey), who manages their training with a watchful eye and a no-nonsense attitude. So it’s practically impossible for perky brunette Wendy (Karina Fontes) to conceal her chronic tardiness, even with the help of willing co-workers Maya (Emily Althaus) and Craig (Brodie Reed). Eager to repay Maya’s frequent efforts to cover for her, Wendy volunteers to take her friend’s assignment posting notices on the park’s far-flung trails, despite her colleagues’ reservations about her limited outdoor skills.
We know this is a bad idea, since Sandra has just told the staff to stop their last-minute shift-swapping, although it’s Wendy’s blithely tossed-off comment that really drives the point home: “It’s just a walk in the woods, how hard can it be?” she queries rhetorically. A lot harder than she imagines, as it turns out.
Rather heedlessly traversing the park’s network of trails to post bear warnings and trash collection reminders, Wendy confuses her route and ends up atop a scenic cliff she assumes to be her assigned destination. When she snaps a summit selfie and sends it to Maya, her friend’s response reveals her error: “That’s not Hitchback Ridge!” Panicked and confused, Wendy hastens to beat a quick retreat before Maya’s follow-up text draws her attention to a body lying at the foot of the cliff. Even Wendy’s cursory examination reveals that the man (Casey Adams) has been dead for several days. After she radios in a panicked report on her walkie-talkie, dispatcher Kevin (Matt Peters) directs her to remain on the scene until help can arrive, which won’t be until the next morning. Assuming a wary lookout in the vicinity of the deceased, she begins nervously planning for a long night stuck outdoors in bear country.
Like many backcountry mishaps, Wendy’s situation could have been avoided, but only if she’d heeded her friends’ advice and stayed off the trails entirely, since she hasn’t had adequate training to manage emergency situations, as Kevin reminds her several times. Had she not run down her phone’s battery listening to music on the trail or dropped her walkie down the cliff, she might have been able to get some guidance coping with her dilemma.
In her first lead performance, Fontes’ inexperience proves a good fit for the role of Wendy, whose lack of survival skills thrust her into increasing peril. Struggling to come to grips with the possibility that the man’s death may not be an accident and that she could be guarding an actual crime scene, her imagination conjures all kinds of chilling outcomes.
These scenarios provide Benjamin with the opportunity to dial through a series of genre modulations, from suspense to horror and dark comedy, as Wendy attempts to deal with her predicament. Shooting almost exclusively outdoors, Benjamin encounters some challenges achieving a suitable tone, particularly in some of the more imaginatively staged scenes.
Wendy’s reactions are similarly unpredictable, emphasizing just how little detail Benjamin provides about her heroine’s background and mental state, sometimes almost implying that Wendy may actually be mentally unstable. A series of tense concluding scenes attempts to dispel that impression, although Benjamin doesn’t quite succeed in demonstrating her premise that life-or-death situations can empower an unwilling victim to become an unexpected hero.
Production companies: Soapbox Films, Protostar Pictures
Distributor: Magnet Releasing
Cast: Karina Fontes, Casey Adams, Emily Althaus, Miranda Bailey, Matt Peters, Brodie Reed
Director-writer: Roxanne Benjamin
Producer: Christopher Alender
Executive producer: David A. Smith
Director of photography: Hanna Getz
Production designers: Courtney Andujar, Hillary Andujar
Costume designer: Jordy Scheinberg
Editor: Matt Blundell, Courtney Marcilliat
Music: The Gifted
Rated R, 87 minutes