“What Lies West” – The horizon [MOVIE REVIEW]

Chloe Moore and Nicolette Ellis in "What Lies West." Photo courtesy of Bright Iris Film Co.

Chloe Moore and Nicolette Ellis in “What Lies West.” Photo courtesy of Bright Iris Film Co.

“What Lies West,” written and directed by Jessica Ellis in her feature directing debut, is a sweet and engaging dual coming of age film. Shot on a shoestring, a very thin shoestring, against odds that couldn’t be foreseen, it’s a real life example of Robert Burns’ “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a gley.” It was filmed in a total of 17 days but took far longer to finish. Between the end of the first shooting segments and the final ones, Ellis underwent open heart surgery and the Sonoma County wildfires burned many of the previously shot exteriors. And then again, there was that pesky pandemic that cut short the festival circuit. But this feisty American Film Institute (AFI)- trained crew prevailed.

What Lies West” tells the story of Nicolette and Chloe, both young women on the cusp of life but coming at it from different angles. Nicolette, a recent college graduate, has decided to spend her summer at home contemplating her next moves. An acting major, she decides against joining her friends going to LA to begin the audition rounds for theater and film work. Her ostensible excuse, “Nobody gets famous doing plays in L.A.” Maybe true, but even within her outwardly winning personality lies the unspoken insecurity of a girl of untraditional looks. We see her beauty, but a casting director will surely notice her outsize features. Still, Nicolette insists, she has a plan, a plan her friends hope does not include Alex, the boyfriend who unceremoniously dumped her but still keeps her on a string. She will spend the season at home in Sonoma.

Summer work is not forthcoming, despite the promises of a winery job from Alex. Nicolette reluctantly takes a “babysitting” job. Anne, a friend of her mother’s exhorts her to take care of her 16 year old daughter Chloe. Convinced that there are dangers everywhere, she wants her daughter under tight controls. Although Anne would like Nicolette to expand Chloe’s horizons, there are severe limitations, from food (“We’re not doing dairy right now because it causes Parkinson’s) to nature (it’s poison oak season).

Chloe, repressed and resentful, pushes the exuberant Nicolette to despair. But with drips and drabs, Nicolette begins to open up Chloe’s world and shows her to be an advocate. There is one thing that Chloe really wants to do. Inspired by Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods, she wants to hike 40 miles through the woods, following the river, to the ocean. She’s even made a detailed map of the journey. This was never Nicolette’s plan but she agrees.  Chloe’s mom is going on a retreat for 4 days and Nicolette agrees to stay. Fully aware that she’ll be fired if Anne discovers that they are going to hike, she agrees because it is something that Chloe needs. It turns out that Nicolette needs it too.

Ellis’s predictable script uses all the tropes about appearance, expectation, love, betrayal, and hope to her advantage. It helps enormously that she used first time, very believable actors to play her protagonists. In their feature film debuts, Nicolette, played by Nicolette Ellis, and Chloe played by Chloe Moore elicit sympathy, making you root for them. It is significant that appearance and size are never an overt issue in the paths these young women seek. But their joint trip is one of empowerment and both come out better for it.

Nicolette Ellis has a smile that lights up the sky and it infuses her performance. Moore takes a bit longer to get immersed in her character but when she does, you can see the substance in her eyes. The personal dilemmas they face are universal and relatable.

If they work well together, it may be partly because they are cousins in real life and the nieces of the director. Using newbies in these roles works to advantage because they are natural and elicit empathy almost immediately. Relatives or not, Ellis gave a break to two girls who would probably still be waiting in line and they came through beautifully.

Jessica Ellis worked with fellow AFI graduates Sean Carroll, director of Photography, Matt Coleshill, editor, and Jennifer Milliman, producer, giving all a chance to shine. This was a family project in every sense of the word.

This is, admittedly, a very small film but it works very well for the Young Adult market and should have a long life on a streaming network after its initial release. It’s not high art but it’s an engaging and fast 80 minutes.

Arriving on VOD and DVD on May 11.

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