'The Driftless Area': Tribeca Review

'The Driftless Area'

Based on the novel by Tom Drury, director Zachary Sluser's first feature film is based on a love affair in a small town. After his parents' death, bartender Pierre Hunter (Anton Yelchin) returns to his childhood home where he falls for Stella (Zooey Deschanel). Their affair unveils a mystery that ripples throughout the entire town. Also starring Frank Langella and Aubrey Plaza

An intriguing but too-listless reality-bender

Anton Yelchin falls for a girl from the other side of the metaphysical tracks.

The term "Driftless Area," geographically, refers to a Midwestern region with a distinctive terrain. Speaking of Zachary Sluser's The Driftless Area, though, one is tempted to use the other definition: While its hints of time-warping oddness are intriguing, the overall effect is of a story unsure of where it's going. That may be appropriate for a film plying the "All points in space and time coexist, we just can't perceive them that way" angle, but it makes for a less captivating viewing experience than one expects given the film's top-notch cast. Names like Anton Yelchin and Zooey Deschanel will attract attention, but a brief art house run is the best likely scenario for Sluser's debut feature.

In the midst of a festival whose narratives lean heavily toward the literal, one appreciates the ambition of pursuing the uncanny. From its occasional Lynchian brushstrokes to a fractured chronology that hints at mysterious forces at work, the picture discourages complacent viewing; unfortunately, the opening sequence is more intriguing than most of what follows: Yelchin's Pierre, hitchhiking with a rose bush in his hand, is picked up by a man who proves to be dangerous (John Hawkes's Shane, the film's only really animated character) and, in an altercation, winds up triumphing in a peculiar, unlikely way.

We leap back then, with some wan narration by Pierre's close friend Carrie (Alia Shawkat) introducing us to the Driftless Area and the inhabitants who will matter to Pierre's story. There's the mysterious Stella (Deschanel), who unbeknownst to lovestruck Pierre is something like a ghost, and Tim Geer (Frank Langella), who appears to be a kind of handler for souls awaiting karmic closure. These two live, confusingly, in the real, physical world, and one is left to guess whether this Driftless Area is a special place where different planes of existence jostle together freely.

While Pierre meets and falls for Stella, slowly picking up on hints of her otherness — and working his way up to brainteasers like, "What if the future's just some place you haven't been?" — Shane embarks on a more easily understood mission to track Pierre down and recover a bag of ill-gotten cash. The casual criminality of his associates (including Ciaran Hinds and Aubrey Plaza) and the bumbling nature of his pursuit bring some low-key dark humor to the film. As things progress, and a satisfying payoff to the story's metaphysical conceits starts to seem less likely, these straightforward genre moments are more and more welcome.

Production companies: Unified Pictures, Bron Studios
Cast: Anton Yelchin, Zooey Deschanel, John Hawkes, Alia Shawkat, Aubrey Plaza, Frank Langella, Ciaran Hinds
Director: Zachary Sluser
Screenwriters: Tom Drury, Zachary Sluser
Producers: Keith Kjarval, Aaron L. Gilbert
Executive producers: Jason Cloth, G Scott Paterson, Alan Simpson, Elika Portnoy, Nicole Romano, John Raymonds, Margot Hand, David Guy Levy, Ben Ruffman, Kurt Rauer, Ron Mcleod, Tecia Esposito
Director of photography: Daniel Voldheim
Production designer: Tony Devenyi
Costume designer: Maria Livingstone
Editors: Tom Cross, Sam Bauer
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Sales: CAA

No rating, 95 minutes