'Rock Steady Row': Film Review | Slamdance 2018

A genre hybrid that actually works.

Trevor Stevens’ debut won both the narrative feature jury and audience awards at the recent Slamdance Film Festival.

More akin to a contemporary Western than a typical college comedy, Rock Steady Row reimagines the university campus as a lonely outpost of civilization where outlaw frats battle for control and traumatized students try to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Darkly humorous, the film’s offbeat storyline finds hope in the bravery and camaraderie of a few isolated rebels who dare to challenge the prevailing power structure. Backed by indie studio Gunpowder & Sky, Trevor Stevens’ stylish first feature should strike a chord with youthful audiences and genre enthusiasts alike.

Substituting bike theft for horse rustling, the film reveals the derelict campus of Rock Steady University, where classically clueless freshman Leroy (Heston Horwin) arrives riding his prized yellow road bike. Within the first five minutes it’s stolen by fast-talking frat boy Palmer (Logan Huffman), who disappears into the depths of the forbidding campus. Finding his rundown, co-ed dorm building where men and women routinely share sleeping arrangements, he complains to his new roommate Piper (Diamond White) about the theft, but she’s already well aware of the situation at the lawless university.

As the founder, editor, reporter and photographer for the student publication The Journal, Piper has been investigating the rampant rustling and resale of students’ bicycles, a market controlled by dueling fraternities Kappa Brutus Omega and The High Society. She warns Leroy that the corrupt Dean (Larry Miler) won’t be doing anything to help recover his bike, a point driven home after an unproductive meeting with the menacing administrator, who warns Leroy against making any trouble that could endanger precious student enrollments. Without his wheels and constantly menaced by the feuding frats, Leroy is going to need a daring plan to upend their campus dominance and recover his favorite bike.

The film’s gleefully satirical tone condemns higher education as a bloodsucking institution that exploits students with outrageous tuition fees while delivering minimal services and a substandard education. Any oversight of antisocial behavior or criminal activity is particularly lacking at Rock Steady, where the administration gladly takes a cut of the fraternities’ illicit bike-running while ignoring abuses against students.

Although Leroy’s resistance campaign is just, it’s a lonely struggle opposing the most powerful players on campus. Horwin, whose nondescript looks frame an often animated visage, plays Leroy as a sly loner forced to lower his guard and form some unexpected alliances to gain an upper hand against the frats. He is well matched by White’s Piper, a spirited advocate for truth and justice who might just possess better resources and stronger nerves than the forces opposing her investigative inquiry.

Stevens stages the action by adapting any number of winking spaghetti Western visual conventions, from swish pans to quick zooms, as he transports the characters to a reimagined frontier setting. The film’s conclusion, however, upends these expectations in a clever series of role reversals that challenges assumptions about the established social order on university campuses.

Production companies: Gunpowder & Sky, King Bandit Films
Cast: Heston Horwin, Diamond White, Logan Huffman, Isaac Alisma, Allie Marie Evans, Larry Miller, Peter Gilroy
Director: Trevor Stevens
Screenwriter: Bomani J. Story
Producers: Jade Allen, Madeleine Krikava, Gia Rigoli, Cody Zwieg
Executive producers: Floris Bauer, Van Toffler, Max Benator, Marc Hustvedt
Director of photography: Nico Aguilar
Production designer: Fabian Carillo
Editor: Jordan Allen
Music: Joshua R. Mosley
Venue: Slamdance Film Festival (Narrative Feature Film Competition)
Sales: Gunpowder & Sky

77 minutes