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Occasionally people or birds burst into song in Maine, but the soundtrack belongs first and foremost to the wind. It’s almost 10 minutes into this two-hander when the first words of dialogue are uttered, and they’re intentionally far less interesting than the sensory experience that envelops the viewer.
Shot in the Virginia Highlands section of the Appalachian Trail, and imparting a strong feeling that the filmmakers are roughing it along with the characters, Maine casts a physical spell around its pair of hikers. The pull of their story, though, is less steady. Then again, when characters are named Bluebird and Lake, as are the trekkers at the center of Matthew Brown’s feature, there’s a suggestion of allegorical distance, even amid the nitty-gritty of mud, blood, rations and mile-by-mile survival. With their quietly piercing emotion, the film’s final moments give the low-key drama a surge of much-needed narrative force.
As with his first feature, the microbudget coming-of-age drama In the Treetops, writer-director Brown has an ear for the ways young adults talk around what they mean. Case in point here is the borderline-belligerent question that Lake (Thomas Mann) asks Bluebird (Laia Costa) about her shaving habits; what he’s really after are specifics about her marriage and her absent husband, information she doles out guardedly.
Lake and Bluebird have been traveling a portion of the Trail together, having met as solo campers before the story begins. She’s a moody Spaniard who veers between exuberance and dark introspection, and Lake, a few years younger, is a callow but sincere American with a string of random jobs behind him. They met under circumstances that were embarrassing (to him), details that she enthusiastically shares with strangers when the chance arises, an insistently unkind way of keeping the cautiously smitten Lake at arm’s length. Bluebird also, all too eagerly, corrects anyone who assumes that they’re a couple. And the way she regards a solo female hiker — with naked envy, or maybe brutal disappointment in herself — conveys the intensity of dashed intentions: Her own solo venture has turned into something she wasn’t looking for.
Heightening Bluebird’s longing for escape, Brown and his DP, Donald R. Monroe, often get uncomfortably close to the characters. That infuses the action with an in-the-moment intimacy, as well as a certain vertigo; as grounded as they are in nature, this duo’s lives are tipped toward an open-endedness somewhere between Zen vessel and delay tactic. Before them lies only the next step, the Trail’s endpoint in Maine their only horizon. When their playful, animal tussling turns into something more serious, it’s no surprise to the audience but somehow startling to Bluebird and Lake.
Rising Catalan star Costa (who toplines another of this year’s Tribeca selections, Duck Butter) is an arresting presence, but while the filmmakers are clearly spellbound by her performance, Bluebird’s fidgety woman-child anguish is often more exasperating than involving. By the time her self-centered sadness gives way to compassion, the drama, with its whispered confessions, feels too unrooted to make much of an emotional impact. Brown’s knack for pared-down narrative, especially as a way of exploring the place between adolescence and adulthood, doesn’t pack the punch of his previous outing.
But as an immersion in the physical world and a very particular form of public solitude, Maine delivers. Shooting in an unshowy 1:66 ratio, Monroe (who also worked on In the Treetops) captures a range of tactile detail, from waterfalls to roadside gravel. You can feel the clean air swirling around the characters as they traipse through summer-green mountains.
An encounter with wild horses is particularly memorable, but the interactions with locals and fellow trekkers offer charged moments, too. As gentle as these exchanges are, they provide the kind of friction — believable and revealing — that the movie strains for in the push-pull between its leads. In the presence of gabby hikers and helpful “trail angels,” like the old man (Glyn Stewart) dispensing chili, coffee and whiskey, the tension between Lake and Bluebird is amplified.
That’s especially so in the closing scenes, when the honeyed maternal voice of a diner waitress (Shannon Queen) and the capsule life story of a friendly stranger (David Gayle “Speedy” Price) set the story at a new angle. Brown finds poetry between the lines, and between the world of noise and clutter and goals and the trail that leads away from it.
Production companies: Beachside Films in association with Story Farm
Cast: Laia Costa, Thomas Mann
Director-screenwriter: Matthew Brown
Producers: Summer Shelton, Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub
Executive producers: Laia Costa, Thomas Mann
Director of photography: Donald R. Monroe
Production designer: Tori Lancaster
Costume designer: Kelsey Sasportas
Editor: Sofi Marshall
Casting directors: Jessica Kelly, Mitzi Corrigan
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
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