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In the stunned aftermath of a fatal road accident, a directionless 16-year-old half-Maori runaway drifts with unpredictable consequences into the lives of strangers in New Zealander Jackie van Beek’s assured first feature, The Inland Road. Centered on a proudly internalized performance from nonprofessional newcomer Gloria Popata, the sensitively observed drama is shot through with kindness, compassion and compelling stillness, viewing even the most thoughtless actions and thorny behavior in an understanding light that adds resonant emotional depths to the open-ended payoff.
Premiering in the Generation 14Plus section at Berlin, the film will likely be too subdued for significant commercial impact. But its keen insight into teen isolation should speak directly to audiences similarly navigating the tricky transition to adult life, or young enough to recall that confusing time. Refreshingly, the fact that its central character is an indigenous minority among whites becomes simply an organic part of the narrative texture, not a race statement that needs to be spelled out.
Shot by Giovanni C. Lorusso in the remote Central Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island, with its mountains, lakes and lonely roads, the film’s limpid widescreen visuals swiftly draw us in with their naturalistic gaze. In a wordless opening condensed into just a few arresting minutes, Tia (Popata) hitchhikes by a sleepy roadside, obtains a lift and then crawls out of the wrecked car with minor injuries after a tire blowout causes the vehicle to flip. She calls for help to rescue the trapped driver, Scotsman Will (David Elliot), whose brother-in-law Matt was thrown from the car and killed.
A terse exchange with Tia’s father (Stephen Lovatt) at the hospital reveals she was planning an unannounced visit, following a bitter disagreement with her mother back up North. He makes it clear his new family is now his priority, giving her a wad of cash and urging her to catch the bus home. Instead, she turns up at Matt’s funeral, her feelings inscrutable as she watches the dead man’s widow May (Jodie Hillock) and his 6-year-old daughter Lily (Georgia Spillane), as well as Will and his wife Donna (Chelsie Preston Crayford).
Tia shows no inclination to leave after the post-funeral gathering, so Will invites her to stay the night at the rural sheep farm where they live. Donna, pregnant with their first child, is wary of the remote-acting girl who reveals very little about herself, and she freaks when Tia starts shooting possums on their roof. But Will feels responsible for the girl’s injuries, arguing for her to stay on, and agreeing to Donna’s terms that Tia help out on the farm.
The uneasy family dynamic expands and acquires fresh nuance when May, too unstable and depressed to take care of Lily after the loss of her husband, leaves her daughter at the farm for a spell. While Tia initially is guarded with the girl, their shared motherless state cements a bond that develops over a series of lovely scenes, all the more touching for being so unforced.
The unselfconscious screen presences of both Popata and Spillane add immeasurably to this gentle thread. It underscores the divide between Tia’s defiant wild side and her yearning for real connections, while providing tender glimpses into Lily’s inchoate feelings about her father’s death.
The film’s main conflict stems from the attraction between Tia and Will. The girl’s removal from her home and everything that’s familiar is not unlike the leap Will took in relocating to a faraway New Zealand farm after he and Donna met and fell in love in London. Finding himself suddenly forced to take the lead in an unfamiliar business formerly run by Matt only adds to his unsteadiness. But while boundaries are crossed during a night when Will and Tia get stuck together on a country road, writer-director van Beek shows far more interest in subtle psychological investigation than in explosive melodrama. The roads that give the film its title form a complex artery system of imperfect human relationships.
Perhaps the drama’s most poignant element is the unspoken instinct pulling Tia toward Will, as a way for the girl to create some semblance of the family unity missing in her own life. And while the sexual factor is undeniable, becoming blatantly exposed to Donna, the latter’s response to the threat against her marriage veers from the expected anger in pleasing ways. She’s firm about protecting the equilibrium of her family but at the same time not unmoved by rudderless Tia’s desperation. The revelation of the circumstances that drove Tia to run away from home makes retroactive sense of her behavior in a beautiful ending that signals her budding maturity without the need to tie everything up in neat resolutions.
With its unsentimental, affecting performances, its delicate score rich in acoustic guitar and the natural beauty of its settings acting as an expressive canvas for emotional solitude, The Inland Road is a modest but quite satisfying debut.
Production company: Sabertooth Films
Cast: Gloria Popata, David Elliot, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Jodie Hillock, Georgia Spillane, Stephen Lovatt
Director-screenwriter: Jackie van Beek
Producer: Aaron Watson
Executive producers: Philippa Campbell, Brett Mills
Director of photography: Giovanni C. Lorusso
Production designer: Leah Popple
Costume designer: Kristin Seth
Music: James Kenyon, Nick Huggins
Editors: Luca Cappelli, Tom Eagles
Casting: Yvette Reid
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Generation 14Plus)
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