AIFF 2013: “Redwood Highway” Review – by Daniel Rester

Redwood Highway Review

by Daniel Rester

             Just because it’s local doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great. Such can be said of Redwood Highway, a film created in Southern Oregon; I am from the area and have lived here my whole life (so far). The film had its world premiere at the 12th Annual Ashland Independent Film Festival on April 5th, with a huge crowd of people and many local filmmakers in attendance. Such an audience allowed the air to fill with excitement. And while it was interesting to see a locally-made film gain such interest, I was left wanting more by the end of the movie.

            Marie Vaughn (Shirley Knight) is an elderly woman who lives at a retirement home in Southern Oregon. She doesn’t connect well with her family members, and she feels uncomfortable where she lives at. Vaughn then learns that she is supposed to attend her granddaughter’s wedding, though she disagrees with such an idea. After Vaughn’s son, Michael (James Le Gros), and granddaughter, Naomi (Zena Grey), become upset with Vaughn, she decides to attend the wedding. But instead of letting everyone know, Vaughn escapes her retirement home and sets off on foot down Redwood Highway – trekking towards the Pacific coast, where the wedding is supposed to be held. Along the way, Vaughn meets a number of people that aid her in her journey.

            Highway is written by Gary Lundgren and James Twyman, and directed by Lundgren. While both filmmakers have good intentions with their screenplay and presentation, the movie ends up being lightweight and forgettable for the most part. This is because it mostly relies on surface-level drama, resorting to simple explorations of such themes as redemption and self-discovery. Such basic ambitions render the film as more of a Lifetime movie on the road instead of something great like Into the Wild.

            What mostly keeps the film floating is Knight’s passionate performance. She effortlessly balances Vaughn’s range of emotions, from her stubbornness to her sweetness to her hidden pain. A few emotional moments that involve certain flashbacks also present Knight at her best.

            The other performances in the film are hit-and-miss, except for two. These come from Tom Skerritt and Michelle Lombardo, who play Pete and Stacia, two people who help Vaughn during different stages of her journey. Both actors are easily likable, and present a lot of the film’s feel-good humor. They also perfectly play off of Knight, allowing for terrific chemistry every now and then.

            The natural Oregon locations are also welcome, captured well by cinematographer Patrick Neary; one really gets to take in the rivers, mountains, forests, and everything else Oregon has to offer. But Lundgren, as the film’s editor as well, too often resorts to such nature shots instead of focusing on stronger storytelling. It feels as if half of the movie is comprised of repetitive walking and nature images. All of it is beautiful, but simultaneously pads the film out. Going along with the views is John Askew’s music score, which is warm but feels heavy-handed at times.

            Highway aims to be wonderful, but winds up as enjoyable – albeit fluffy and predictable. The film could have used a dose of dramatic punch, and some sharper points on aging, but it gets by entertainment-wise. In the end, I wish Highway was more than it was but Knight still makes everything worthwhile.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B-).

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