Pearblossom Hwy: Film Review

Pearblossom Highway - H 2012
Mood trumps character in this microbudget exploration of high-desert angst.

Mike Ott’s broody third feature takes place in the bleak northern stretches of Los Angeles County.

Littlerock director Mike Ott returns to the bleak northern stretches of Los Angeles County in his third feature, Pearblossom Hwy, a broody drama whose dusty, no-hope atmosphere is its strongest element. Reaching for Nouvelle Vague experimentation, it occupies a territory closer to post-mumblecore self-consciousness, hitting a promising vein only late in the proceedings. 

A specialty distributor could position the film for a small-scale niche run, and continued festival exposure is a certainty for the microbudget depiction of youthful ennui, which is receiving its North American premiere in AFI Fest’s Young Americans section. 

Until the central trio of characters embark on a road trip to San Francisco -- more than halfway through the film -- the action unfolds in the unfashionable flats of Lancaster, along the titular truck route through Southern California’s high desert. Cory Zacharia and Atsuko Okatsuka, who worked with Ott on Littlerock, play friends Cory and Anna, who are each desperate to escape. 

Cory’s straight-to-flip-camera video journal, with its refrain of filial complaint, runs through the film like an off-putting whine. The sense of indulgence is no doubt intended — some of Cory’s recordings serve as an audition tape for a more public form of navel gazing, a reality show. He’s convinced that landing on Young Life is the key to finding the purpose and momentum that will lift him from his barroom-level rebellion. In the meantime, fueled by whip-its, he wails dumb lyrics about anarchy as frontman of a band. 

Anna, a beauty whose despair is as still and silent as Cory’s is fidgety and rambling, wants only to return to Japan to see her ailing grandmother, and has begun selling her body in order to afford the trip. She endures the encounters in highway motels with the same sad-eyed impassiveness she brings to her exchanges with her aunt, uncle and young cousins, and remains indifferent toward her upcoming citizenship test. The only time she smiles is when there’s rare harmony between Cory and his older brother, Jeff (John Brotherton), an ex-Marine who regards him with the utmost disapproval but hasn’t given up on him. 

If only to show Cory that the father (Stephen Tobolowsky) he never met is a bigger screw-up than he is, Jeff arranges a road trip to visit him in San Francisco, and invites Anna to join them. 

Ott underscores his interest in identities in flux by including a video journal piece in which the lament about an absent father is, explicitly, not just Cory’s but Zacharia’s. But rather than deepen the story or the movie experience, such documentary/improvisational components feel like another layer of posturing while Ott and Okatsuka’s screenplay tries to find its footing. 

The studied presentation of types breaks open with an encounter in a San Francisco dive bar. But just as the film takes a potentially involving turn and begins to express intriguing ideas, it’s over. The affecting final image emphasizes the POV that has shaped much of the story — Anna’s — and finds her on the outside looking in. 

Amid the rumbling trucks, graffitied ruins and edge-of-town emptiness, the contributions of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, production designer WenDee Cuneo and composer Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir build the tone of small-town listlessness.

Production company: Small Form Films
Cast: Atsuko Okatsuka, Cory Zacharia, John Brotherton, Stephen Tobolowsky
Director: Mike Ott
Screenwriters: Mike Ott, Atsuko Okatsuka
Producers: Athina Rachel Tsangari, Molly Hansen, Mike Ott
Executive producers: Frederick Fulton Henry Thornton
Director of photography: Mike Gioulakis
Production designer: WenDee Cuneo
Music: Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir
Co-producers: Laura Ragsdale, Chris Abernathy
Costume designer: Alex Simone
Editor: David Nordstrom
No MPAA rating, 78 minutes