'The Well': LAFF Review

Survival stripped down to its essentials. 

Tom Hammock’s conscientiously crafted feature gets great mileage from a unique setting and some strong screen performances.

Blending elements of postapocalyptic thriller with classic Western conventions, director Tom Hammock draws on his extensive experience as a production designer and his background as a graphic novelist with this distinctive, near-future debut feature. Festivals certainly will consider the film for genre programming, and theatrical release is also a possibility with additional favorable exposure. 

Opening with the tagline “Oregon, a few years from now,” the film depicts an eerily desolate landscape where teenagers Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) and Dean (Booboo Stewart) are two of the few holdouts left in a region that hasn’t seen rain in a decade. Their outpost at the former Wallace Farm for Wayward Youth is one of the few left with a working well, which delivers a rapidly dwindling supply of fresh water as the underground source steadily diminishes. With Dean crippled by advancing kidney failure, the pair take shelter in the secluded attic of the farmhouse, keeping in touch with scattered nearby settlements by ham radio and planning their escape in an old crop-dusting plane that’s critically in need of spare parts.

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Kendal spends much of the blistering-hot daytime hours cautiously searching abandoned vehicles for a very specific distributor cap compatible with the plane’s engine. She’s armed with an outsized pump-action shotgun and a rusty hatchet as protection against various aggressive vagrants and scavengers, trying to stay below the radar of violent water-hoarder Carson (Jon Gries) and his gang of marauding thugs.

Kendal’s tentative relationship with neighboring refugee Gabriel (Michael Welch) ends tragically when Carson appropriates his family’s farm, killing Gabriel’s relatives and taking the young man captive. Recognizing it won’t be long before Carson reaches her hideout and discovers the well, Kendal steps up her desperate search for the elusive engine part and prepares for an assault against her farm, outnumbered and outgunned by her adversaries.

Hammock’s carefully composed widescreen shots of the parched landscape contribute to crafting the film’s stripped-down, distinctly menacing visual aesthetic and emphasize the isolation of the inhabitants, forced to compete for water and survival. The sun-blasted Northern California wasteland setting, dotted with abandoned structures and vehicles, greatly enhances the film’s disastrous backstory, which is hinted at but never elaborated on.

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Although Jacob Forman’s screenplay capably conveys the critical issue of advancing global water scarcity, it perhaps omits too many relevant details, neglecting to clarify issues such as how the characters escape widespread famine during a deadly drought, or how energy is generated to power the few operable electrical devices in a makeshift society lacking industrial infrastructure.

Richardson seizes her role as the reluctant guardian of the well with verve, delivering a dynamic performance that consistently centers the action on Kendal’s conviction to protect her threatened water source and the few remaining people she loves. Stewart spends much of the film sidelined as the afflicted Dean, who only belatedly figures in the action once it’s too late to make much of an impression. Carson clearly represents a credible threat to nearly every other character in the narrative, but Gries’ interpretation of the role comes off as only mildly threatening, although Nicole Fox and Michael McCartney as his casually cruel sidekicks offer an unpredictable hint of mayhem that’s never fully actualized.

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DP Seamus Tierney’s cinematography benefits handsomely from the film’s predominant reliance on natural and available light, allowing production designer Sarah M. Pott and costume designer Emma Potter to make the best use of the film’s desolate settings to contextualize the characters’ desperation.

Production company: Federighi Films
Cast: Haley Lu Richardson, Booboo Stewart, Max Charles, Nicole Fox, Michael Welch, Jon Gries, Michael Massee, Rena Owen, Leo Lee, Barbara Crampton, Michael McCartney, Jacqueline Emerson
Director: Tom Hammock
Screenwriter: Jacob Forman
Producers: Seth Caplan, Chris Harding
Executive producers: Billy Federighi, Dante Federighi
Director of photography: Seamus Tierney
Production designer: Sarah M. Pott
Costume designer: Emma Potter           
Editors: Adam Wingard, Sarah Broshar
Music: Craig Deleon
Sales: Submarine
No rating, 95 minutes