“Redland” is an art film in the most literal and complimentary sense. Every frame of it looks like an Impressionist painting or an exquisite photograph, and the dialogue is overheard in snippets, the way you half-hear conversations when you’re drifting to sleep. The story is non-linear and dreamlike. The film’s substance, its actual content, is good, but its style is nothing short of astonishing.
The setting is a rural, isolated mountain home during the Great Depression. These are not the Waltons, though. The unnamed family is dirt-poor, living in a ramshackle house and barely staying ahead of starvation. They subsist on the few chickens and other animals kept on their property. You know the old clichÃ© about how we were poor but we didn’t know it, because we were happy? Not these people. These people are poor and miserable.
Worse, the teenage daughter, Mary-Ann (Lucy Adden), has been having a sexual affair with Charlie Mills (Toben Seymour), a neighbor boy her age (“neighbor” means he lives a few miles away), and has been trying desperately to keep it hidden from her father (Mark Aaron) and mother (Bernadette Murray). Father suspects something is wrong with his daughter and asks her brothers — older Job (Sean Thomas) and younger Paul (Kathan Fors) — if they’ve noticed any visitors lurking around, but they say they haven’t.
When the family’s plight becomes truly life-threatening, with Mother on the brink of death from malnutrition, Father and Job set off on a dangerous trek across the river in search of wild game. Charlie Mills is invited to accompany them, though Father has already grown suspicious of him. (When you live in desolate isolation, the list of possible secret boyfriends for your daughter is short.)
The writer and director is Asiel Norton, who grew up in the isolated mountains of Northern California where the picture was shot and graduated from USC’s film program in 2004. (This is his first feature.) He tells the story as if he were eavesdropping on it, with characters half-obscured and camera angles that suggest the point of view of someone spying on them. As a result, some of the more shocking elements are diluted (you’ll often think, “Wait, did that really happen?”) — which makes it all the more powerful when something is presented straightforwardly.
This is not an action film. It is quiet, contemplative, and dreamy, reminding me of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” (or anything by Malick, really). The film is the equivalent of a lazy summer afternoon spent napping next to a slow-moving stream, except that the nap is occasionally interrupted by ghastly nightmares.
Norton’s characters are inextricably connected to Nature. For all intents and purposes, they live outdoors. They are at the mercy of the weather, and of the abundance or scarcity of wildlife. When the laws of nature are violated, Nature responds violently.
Fittingly, next to Mother Nature, the real star of the film is the cinematographer, Zoran Popovic. “Redland” features some of the most breathtaking photography I’ve ever seen in a movie: gauzy one moment, grainy the next, crystal-clear after that, with a wide range of colors and compositions that are always used for a particular effect, never just to be “artsy.” On the big screen, in vivid, widescreen glory, the film can be a completely immersive experience.
A- (1 hr., 45 min.; )