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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

CineVegas Dispatch: Redland

Director Asiel Norton’s first feature film, Redland, is the kind of film I go to festivals hoping to find: imaginative, lovely, and not quite like anything I’ve seen before. The film is about a family struggling to survive the Great Depression in a remote mountain cabin and the tragic aftermath of an affair the daughter, Mary Ann, has with a neighbor. The story itself is simple and not particularly unique — jealous, protective father; young lovers heedless of the consequences of their actions — but the way in which Norton tells his tale is unique and visually quite stunning.
Norton grew up on a remote mountaintop near where he shot the film, and he plays with and understands the light and shadow of his rural setting as a canvas for his story. There are shots in this film that are absolutely stunning, almost painterly in their beauty. Norton uses sepia tones that evoke Depression-era photographs like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” to set the tone of the time and place in which his story is set, evoking a sense of stark hopelessness, hunger and desperation amid the deceptively fertile forest setting; these shots tend to feel like those old photographs come to life — or, perhaps more accurately, as if we ourselves have stepped into that world.
When Norton’s exploring the love affair between Mary Ann and her lover, Charlie, he bathes his shots in golden rays of light as if the happiness the couple is carving out of these moments in an otherwise bleak and desperate existence fills them and spills out to color the world around them as they see it; by way of contrast, he uses shadows and noise to evoke uneasiness and tension in the films darker moments.

There are times when Norton’s exploration of his visual canvas start to feel overly indulgent, or at least ventures more into the realm of purely experimental filmmaking — plays of light and shadow, recurring horizontal rays of golden light, visual noise and extreme closeups, that will either intrigue or annoy you, depending on your interest in that type of thing. For me, these moments mostly work, but I started to get a bit irritated with what felt to me like an overuse of that technique.
Some of those shots reminded me of those photos that zoom in an extreme closeup of something like a bug’s legs or the bristles of a toothbrush, where you have to reorganize your visual perception to figure out what you’re seeing. This is interesting to an extent, but it started to get in the way of the storytelling for me, particularly in shots where the grain and visual noise were so high that it was hard to tell what you were even looking at. For me, those moments felt like a filmmaker indulging in the desire to push visual boundaries so far that it started to feel a bit too precious at the expense of the story.
Then again, this film is so very visual in its nature, so different from anything I’ve seen before, that I’m willing to overlook Norton’s tendency to get a bit carried away with what he’s doing, because at least what he’s doing is bold and evocative and completely different than 98% of the same-old boring indie films about yet another group of narcissistic 20-somethings in trendy clothes sitting around drinking beer, smoking pot and pondering the meaning of life through unscripted, boring dialogue. If I want to listen to smug hipster intellectual wannabes pontificate on the meaning of life, I’ll go hang out at a coffeeshop in Seattle for an afternoon. Norton, at least, is reaching for something different here, and although it doesn’t completely work from start to finish, it’s smart, engaging, and interesting.
Redland isn’t a perfect film, but this kind of ambitious effort is what I want to see from a first-time filmmaker. Norton’s the kind of young, first-time filmmaker I’m excited to discover, and I look forward to seeing more work from in the future. If you’re a fan of highly visual, experimental filmmaking, and you’re willing to work a bit intellectually rather than have your movie completely spoon-fed to you, Redland is well worth checking out if you get a chance.

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