Trail Mix: Brown Offers Ephemeral Romance on Appalachian Hike
The anti-thesis of a fight-against-the-elements type narrative a la Wild or Tracks, Maine unfolds quietly and emphasizes the natural surroundings over needless dialogue or accompanying score. The sophomore feature by North Carolinian filmmaker Matthew Brown sees its emotional core more European-influenced (Laia Costa‘s character certainly helps) sense of drift—featuring two souls struggling to reconcile their undeniable attraction with the realities of their outside lives. Brown is able to overcome the manic pixie dream girl trappings of a lesser version of this story, and by the film’s conclusion achieves a potent mix of melancholy and liberation.
We are first introduced to Bluebird (Costa) dealing with feminine issues on the Appalachian trail. Then a young man with shaggy hair, Lake (Thomas Mann), emerges from his tent and starts a drumbeat on his pot of oatmeal. Soon Bluebird joins in, and it’s clear from this wordless exchange that these two are hiking in harmony. Costa and Mann have a terrific chemistry that carries the film. Bluebird is supposedly married, and a decade or so older than her hiking buddy, though her youthful face and playful demeanor would suggest otherwise.
Costa’s take on Bluebird is one that wears a strong flirtatious streak. Her go-to move is rubbing her eye while smiling and looking away. Her and Lake play-fight with berries, pet wild ponies, and even steal a kiss, while denying any sort of romantic connection to all other inquiring hikers passing by. At one point Bluebird tells Lake that she’s leaving, and he realizes that their time together will inevitably come to an end. He asks her to read to him from her journal, but she defers, ‘You won’t understand it.’ He prods her again, and she starts reading in Spanish, in one of the film’s funnier moments. Lake’s mood turns sour when he accompanies her to town, selfishly unable to accept her autonomy, as she prepares to leave. The final sequence elevates the film and filmmaker to true auteur status. It’s the kind of ending that’s unexpected yet inescapable, and informs the entire film.
Gorgeously lensed by Donald Monroe, who has worked with Brown on all his previous short films, the cinematography brings the wilderness to life. The camera lingers on shots for a few extra beats to convey the tranquility of nature and the quiet breath of the trees. The film is dotted with rich side characters, mostly older folks with thick southern accents. One standout is a ‘trail angel’ named Glyn Stewart who offers them a holy triumvirate of chili, coffee and whiskey. He’s a non-actor who was featured in Ramin Bahrani’s documentary short ‘Lift You Up’ and resurfaces here to offer some wisdom in a scene reminiscent of Into the Wild’s Salvation Mountain.
Brown’s assured drama portrays the ephemeral nature of friendships on the trail. With his young actors he’s able to capture the phase of life where freedom is valued above security. The title refers not to the section of trail in the film (they’re in Virginia), but rather the trail’s endpoint. And such a beautiful idea that is; underscoring the philosophy that life is lived moment to moment—that it’s not about the destination but the journey.
Reviewed on April 24th at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival – US Narrative Competition. 85 Minutes.