Stay honest, Mr. Lincoln. – Jane, West of Her
Directed by Ethan Warren, West of Her tells the story of Dan (Ryan Caraway), a young man searching for purpose. Alone and adrift in life, he signs on with a mysterious organization, agreeing to travel the country with the enigmatic Jane (Kelsey Siepser) as they unveil mysterious and enigmatic street art in the middle of the night.
Set against the backdrop of the American mid-west, West of Her is both an engaging and cinematic film that, at times, feels like a bold experiment. In many ways, the film feels almost like it could have been directed by Terrence Malick, which is a high compliment for first-time director, Ethan Warren. His use of broad cinematography surrounds his leads in a way that makes them appear small by comparison, emphasizing their insignificance on the grand stage. What’s more, his use of improvisation brings a sense of authenticity to the conversation between the two leads, creating a sense of genuine honesty between them. All of these factors add up to create a film that is engaging and candid in its quest for meaning in our disconnected culture.
In many ways, West of Her is a love letter to the millennial experience in that, while it struggles to find clear answers, it is more than willing to engage the murkiest of questions. Issues of belief, identity and our purpose in this life flow freely within the film in ways that neither judge nor belittle those asking them. At one point, the film makes an appropriate reference to the Wizard of Oz and, in doing so, offers a callback to the mysterious man behind the curtain. As the ‘great and powerful’ Wizard proved to be frustratingly ordinary, so too does Dan and Jane’s endeavor seem lost at the hands of a faceless organization who remains quiet on their reasoning behind the project. Still, while Jane accepts their mission to lay their art as an end to itself, Dan wants to know more. He yearns to find his place in a universe that seems overwhelmingly large and imposing against their own individual unimportance. He claims to have no particular system of belief but cannot accept that there is no meaning to life. (“You believe more than you think you do,” Jane prods.)
But what exactly does Dan believe? Certainly, he wants to believe that his work has meaning. The artistic endeavor that they’re involved in seems to be driven by some end goal, but the purpose eludes him. (“It’s not just the mystery,” he says. “I think it has something to do with the message.”) The tiles seem to offer some words of hope and connectedness to those around him, yet he and Jane still move around like nomads. He also believes in the reality of love (although it could also be argued that Jane believes in the power of that more than he does). Ultimately, however, Dan seems to be caught in an ongoing stream of ideologies, striving desperately to discover something true and honest. (Incidentally, Jane also seems to be one who used to believe something secure… until life’s tragedies shattered her confidence in anything real.)
Nevertheless, rather than settling for an ending that simply acquiesces to the meaninglessness of life, West of Her also remains confident about the nature of purpose. Eternally hopeful, Dan seems to recognize that, even though the doesn’t have all the answers, he still believes there are answers. Though it is unafraid to ask the most difficult questions of this generation, there is an optimism about the film that remains palpable. Yes, Dan may be dissatisfied with the traditional answers given—several beautiful shots with a church background suggest a spiritual heritage—but he is very interested in engaging them. Dan wants to believe something.
He’s just not sure what he’s looking for. Yet.
In the end, West of Her is a surprisingly engaging and philosophical film with grand intentions. Director Ethan Warren builds a solid visual tension with his cinematography while the leads carry their heavy load effectively and authentically. Wrestling with some of life’s most difficult questions, West of Her reveals the cries of a generation struggling with their own disconnectedness from truth and each other.
West of Her is available on iTunes and Google Play.