Manifest West: Where do you go to find peace?

Manifest West like a lot of indie films strives to make the most of its resources. In doing so it reveals some its excellent part that are held together by a loose story. This creates a film where the passion and excitement are shown in every shot and line in the movie. This same enthusiasm does move the story in directions where there are sudden changes in character. The story certainly had powerful dramatic potential but the way these characters personalities, quirks and desires affect the story in a way that?s hard to follow.

Our protagonist Riely (Lexy Kolker) is approaching her adolescence when her life gets turned upside down. Her family is moving out to the western wilderness as Riely?s family seeks to liberate themselves from a claustrophobic and regulated city life. But as they seek to escape and reform themselves as a family their value to each other as a family becomes warped and distorted until Riely can barely recognize who her home is. This idea of home is brought up right from the get-go as Riely sits in an empty room in protest of the move, her mom Alice (Annet Mahedru) reassures her that home is where her family is. By the end of the movie Riely is unable to recognize what about her family makes them her home.

The family?s first troubles become clear as they bicker over the bill at a road stop diner. They need to need to fight for every penny. While it?s kept ominous for the first third of a movie, the story reveals one the primary reason for their financial struggles is Alice?s mental health. As the family moves into the cabin, they now call their home more challenges arise. The place is broken down and Riely?s dad Dave (Milo Gibson) must fix it all himself. Then Dave is regulated by a government inspector to bring in a winch to stop a leak left by the previous owner. Dave starts to realize that escaping to live off the grid isn?t a clean break. He?s not alone in this feeling as Riely and her sister Mary (Madison Friedman) first to find one of their neighbours while playing around. As country folk do, the neighbour Eric (Michael Cudlitz) and his wife Susie (Dionne Audain) are brought over for dinner. As a return for this kindness Eric introduces Dave to Steve (Tim Heidecker) who helps put in the winch he needs to keep the government off his back.

These families unite in their shared love of keeping the powers that be away from ?their city on the shining hill,” a quote from Ronald Reagan that Steve gives to Dave as they smoke and drink together. The film doesn?t hide who these people are as Steve continues to dilute Dave with stories and speech that convince him that they?re a dying breed of people who need to do everything in their power to keep their place in the mountains alone. Dave is convinced by this radical mentality as he sees his wife dealing with her mental illness better in the mountains and feels a comradery with Steve and Eric. However, its quickly revealed that these families aren?t in as similar a circumstance as they think. Riely goes on a walk with Steve?s daughter Lana (Ava Kolker) who tells Riely that their family is rich enough to live in Beverely Hills and they just happen to like to hunt and fish. Riely knows they are here out of necessity and after an incident of peer pressure gone wrong it seems Riely should be trying to get her family to realize that their neighbours aren?t exactly on the same playing ground. Steve and his family can afford to be radical outsiders. Dave with Alic?s mental health and their lack of financial stability cannot.

The story of Manifest West contains clear themes of family, home, radicalism, mental illness and what happens when all of that is put into the beauty of the remote mountains. While there?s a through lines for each character?s arch. How their choices differ from scene to scene seems to radically shift without clear explanation. When Riely is peer pressured by her new neighbor Lana to drink a beer, she seems to know that?s a stupid idea. In fact, she outright mocks the idea of drinking during a family dinner when she sarcastically asks for ?a tall one on the rocks?. Then as Dave brings the girls out to a party during one of Alice?s moods swings, she suddenly embraces the world of rebellion. For her the comedic enjoyment of watching a guy spray paint into his mouth to get buzzed and getting a wave from Lana, a girl who nearly broke her arm while pressuring her to drink is enough to start engaging in rebellious antics. Suddenly her coming of age desire is to go with Lana to throw rocks at unsuspecting trucks, smoke by the river and comedically use sexual words in a madlibs story. It?s changes like these that make Riely an unconvincing protagonist despite mostly wonderful work from Lexy Kolker. The way these characters change with mostly cloudy reasons really subdues any dramatic impact the film should contain. The clearer arch comes from Riely?s dad Dave who starts out as an optimistic man who sees a chance for his family to thrive in a place where his wife can heal. By the end Dave feels so pressured by? Alice?s declining health, neighbors with extreme rhetoric and problems with his kids that he takes drastic action.

The cinematography of this film is wonderful as it expands its indie scope with consistently well-lit wide shots capturing these characters in the open expanse of their new home and the places surrounding it. While clearly not as polished as studio films DoP Joe Diesch who co-wrote and co-directed the film with Louie Gibson brings out the beauty in the more intense and softer natural light of the mountains. The actors are a wonderfully casted ensemble as the adults all fit their roles to perfection with Milo Gibson conveying a compelling breakdown of a man who is desperate to keep his dream of a happy family in the countryside together. These directors help guide these actors through what I perceive as slightly clunky material very well and the actors make it their own. Madison Freidman as Mary does an excellent job of portraying her character as a young precocious girl with ADHD, I hope to see her in more films. Lexy Kolker as the protagonist of this small film has a lot on her shoulders as the lead and she carries it very well. She is convincing in her portrayal of a young girl turning into a more mature rebellious young lady even if the writing is not. There is one scene which likely wanted to serve as the emotional climax of the film where she?s required to give a very emotional monologue. She does fail to meet the emotions we?ve come to expect from big emotional outbursts even from a child, but the film does her no favors in how it sets it up. Some parts of this film probably shouldn?t have been taken as seriously as the directors were trying to communicate in its filmmaking. The intense score while not effective in its composition is used to make tender moments seem intense which works for the tone of the movie but does seem to lack heart. Heart seems necessary in a film about the importance family. So, as we find ourselves in the tragic climax of the film, we wonder how we?ve been taken from a loving family moving on to new pastures to a fractured group of people who?ve taken their escape to extreme and tragic ends.

Manifest West is available now on VOD.

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