VOD Releases: Mischa Barton in Deserted

It's always nice to see an indie film – and especially a debut feature – which sets for itself an impressive challenge, and has the ambition to try and conquer it. Even if the finished film ultimately falters, it is refreshing to see an independent filmmaker attempt something bold. Deserted, the first feature-length film by writer/director Ashley Avis, sets for itself a couple major hurdles: firstly, it is set almost entirely in the remote center of Death Valley, a location that was surely as brutal to film in as it is for its characters to inhabit. And secondly (and much more thanklessly), it has to compete with the memory of the ultimate stranded-in-the-desert thriller, Danny Boyle's masterful 127 Hours, which is a really hard act for any film with a similar premise to follow. Unfortunately Deserted definitely falters, and never escapes the shadow of its modern-classic analog; but at least it falters attempting something interesting. Aspects of Avis's film show quite a bit of promise, particularly when it comes to her eye for strong visuals, but a weak script and a resulting lack of sufficient tension ultimately hold the film back. In the end it never really rises above being a commendable if unsuccessful experiment that I genuinely wish was better.

It follows a young woman named Jae (Mischa Barton of The OC fame) who has just gotten out of prison. Wanting a way to start putting her tragic past behind her, she joins her brother (Jackson Davis), a few of his friends, and a handful of strangers on a road trip across Death Valley. But their weekend vacation takes a harsh turn when their vehicle breaks down and they become lost in the desert, struggling to survive and find help. It's a solid premise, and one that Barton clearly puts her all into: she delivers quite a good performance, bringing an introspective emotional gravity to a part that speaks more in body-language than dialogue. I never watched The OC (though I was in high school when it was on, Freaks And Geeks and Buffy were more my style of teen series), so I went into this film largely unfamiliar with Barton as an actress, and left the movie quite impressed with her. She is easily the best actor in the film; however, perhaps she has an advantage because her part is so light on dialogue, considering that the script is Deserted's weakest component.

"While we're stuck out here, want to take a cover photo for an indie record?"

It becomes clear quite quickly that Avis's script just isn't up to the level of character depth required to make the premise as compelling as it should be. Most of the characters remain fairly surface-level and one-dimensional, in a way one might expect from the body-count of characters in a slasher film. They are stuck with some awkwardly on-the-nose expository dialogue introducing their immediately-recognizable traits and quirks, and on a couple occasions the plot is propelled forward by someone (or all of them) doing something almost unbelievably stupid given the dire situation they're all stuck in. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that the script clearly sets up a situation wherein their life-or-death predicament is supposed to draw out their secrets, regrets, and animosities, but most of these plot threads never really pan out or lead to much of dramatic significance. Jae's character arc is the only one that really feels fleshed out; perhaps the problem is that there are too many characters to give them all equal weight, or perhaps the problem is that the script just needed further development before it went to shooting. It is unfortunate, because the premise really is a good one, and I'm sure it could have made a much better movie with another few drafts or the input of a co-writer. It is doubly unfortunate because Avis clearly has a good visual eye and knows how to shoot a film, yet the weaknesses of the script largely rob it of the tension and life-or-death suspense that it rightfully should have.

"Hey, you're not really Jerry O'Connell!"
Production-wise, Deserted definitely has some strong points, particularly in how the film is shot. This is a very good-looking movie, especially for a lower-budget indie production. It certainly helps that it is shot in an absolutely gorgeous location, but Avis and cinematographer Garrett O'Brien shoot it really well. Their shot compositions are very strong, as is their striking use of the desert's rich color palette, and they capture both the landscape's beauty and its unforgiving harshness quite effectively. If the content of the film was as good as its visuals, it would be quite a good movie indeed. Even as it is, the strong aesthetics help to make up for the weaknesses elsewhere.

Deserted is about halfway there; Ashley Avis the screenwriter has some work to do to improve her skills, but Ashley Avis the director shows a promising visual eye which certainly should help her to make much better films in the future. This is by no means a bad movie; my criticisms are largely because it is just an average movie, but it had the potential to be better. Even if the narrative and character arcs do fall a bit flat, I certainly appreciate the ambition of this debut feature, and the strong visual artistry involved. Avis has another film coming out later this year – what looks to be a coming-of-age drama with themes of abuse survival and addiction, called Adolescence – and this time she is co-writing with other collaborators. I will be very interested to see how she handles this second feature and learns from the flaws of her first, and I am hopeful that this could be the film with which she really arrives. In the mean time, there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half than in the desert with Deserted, but there are also better ones.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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