Sundance 2021 Review: ‘One For the Road’ Sappily Tackles Friendship and Heartache

Alan French reviews "One for the Road," a film from the Sundance Film Festival 2021. "One for the Road" is directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya and produced by Wong Kar-Wai.
User Rating: 5

How you find the friends that define your life can be a story unto itself. Some moments create bonds that transcend a place and time, and some actions bear consequences for years. The study of friendship on film is as old as the medium itself. Yet, the crevices in which filmmakers discover their subjects can be extraordinarily rewarding. Director Nattawut Poonpiriya dissects what regret and guilt may do to two men over the years. While Poonpiriya’s film seems to hit the nail on the head a little too often, he builds a strong case as a director to watch in the future.

One for the Road follows two friends, Boss (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn) and Aood (Natara Nopparatayapon), after Aood discovers he has Leukemia. Boss returns to Thailand from New York, where he runs a bar. Aood’s cancer leaves him with the urge to reconnect with former romances and return items to each of them. Boss agrees to accompany Aood, serving as the chauffeur for their trip across the country. Yet as the trip continues, the faults of each friend’s actions come into the light.

Poonpiriya and cinematographer Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun create a visual spectacle that fights against the fairly rote story. The two clearly draw from the film’s producer Wong Kar-Wai and the recent films of Barry Jenkins. Extreme closeups and intimate shots become the norm. Memories become dreamlike playgrounds for the characters, extrapolating why they dominate our actions for years. Many shots throughout the film are evocative on many levels. Sex, passion, and heartbreak are all depicted with grace. They even capture alcohol and bartending images that stack up with the best shots of food and drink in film. It’s no wonder that Kar-Wai came onto the film as a producer.

Sadly, the narrative never rises to the same heights as the visuals. The story plays out in a rather predictable fashion, in part because we’ve seen this story before. High Fidelity is hard to ignore, in part because of how it examines its lead’s faults. One for the Road misses that mark. The men’s toxicity in the film is staggering and irreparably damages the characters as the film progresses. This compounds with a surprisingly long-run time for a road trip film. The film seems to know this too, as it checks off the exact moments you’d expect from a generic 90-minute road trip movie. The surprise is the length of the third act, which overshadows the rest of the film. Unfortunately, you must wade through two frustrating acts to get to the reward, which will turn many viewers off.

Sadly, the film’s faults pile up and steal some of the film’s momentum. Whether intentional or not, Poonpiriya’s use of language colors your view of the protagonists. They flagrantly throw slurs and swears at women, demeaning them over and over again. The women’s lack of self-confidence becomes a thread throughout the film. Instead, it is the direct interactions of Aood and Boss that push them to greatness, a troubling message, to say the least. Combined with each character’s possessive mindsets, One for the Road becomes a problematic narrative at best.

Luckily, the actors elevate the screenplay at every turn. The real breakout should be Leeratanakajorn, who simply charms his way through every scene. Even when Boss is problematic, and plenty of times he is, he finds a way out of it feeling excessively creepy. Leeratanakajorn sells the humor to perfection, committing to exaggerated facial expressions that would have made him a silent film star in another time. In the quiet moments, he retreats into himself and sells the emotion. His mere presence keeps you engaged, and One for the Road needed his energy to survive.

Finally, One for the Road seesaws between a genuinely beautiful score and some of the least inventive needle drops you’ll ever see. The budget spent on the music was undeniably high. Hits from Elton John, Cat Stevens, and The Rolling Stones blast through the film, often overcompensating for the narrative’s lack of emotional depth. The music’s presence makes sense within the film, but this does not excuse the lack of creative song selections. This is made even more frustrating by the Beale Street-inspired score running through the film. The use of jazzy, barfly style score fits thematically within the framework of One for the Road. Yet, the overreliance on pop hits signals a lack of confidence somewhere in the chain of command.

One for the Road is a frustrating film, in part because of its proximity to greatness. The version of this story does not work this time, but even a few changes could have made this an exceptional film. Instead, it’s a middle-of-the-road story that hits predictable beats. Poonpiriya seems like a director who has a great film in him. Sadly, it was not this one.

ALAN FRENCH’S RATING FOR ONE FOR THE ROAD IS A 5 OUT OF 10

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Written by
Alan French has been writing about TV and entertainment awards for more than five years. He joined AwardsCircuit in 2016, where he became a Rotten Tomatometer-approved critic. He has also written for WeBoughtABlog, 1428 Elm, and InsideTheMagic. He's interviewed directors, actors, and craft teams from Stranger Things, The Good Place, Atlanta, and more. He holds a Masters in Mass Communication from the University of Central Florida and two Bachelors degrees from Florida State University. When he’s not watching movies, he’s usually at one of Florida’s theme parks.

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