The first thing I noticed about Noam Kroll’s Shadows on the Road was the film’s fantastic cinematography. The opening shot of the Pacific Ocean at dawn immediately sucked me in, and I just felt that I was in for something incredible. I correctly guessed that this would be another indie road trip movie based on the film’s title. There are thousands of them out there because it’s a tried-and-true formula that is relatively cheap to pull off.
It puts the focus on the characters rather than elaborate set pieces and makes the audience feel like they’re also along for the ride. I understand why filmmakers do it, and I don’t roll my eyes at them. Some of the best independent films I’ve reviewed here at Film Threat have been indie road trip movies, and Shadows on the Road sets itself apart from the rest with its beautiful imagery and well-written characters.
Newcomer Morgan Makana is an actress I’m hoping to see a lot more. She pulls off her dialogue in a charming, yet believable, way that makes her captivating to watch. Apparently, this is her first film role, and I would never have known had it not been for IMDb. Her counterpart, Flavia Watson, shines here as well. The story has a twist at the end that I don’t want to give away, but it involves a very sensitive subject, especially in today’s social landscape. This particularly delicate issue is thankfully covered with respect and realism, which is much appreciated.
“…a young woman living on the streets with a goal of getting down the coast to stay with her brother in Mexico.”
Watson plays Zoe, a young woman living on the streets with a goal of getting down the coast to stay with her brother who lives in Mexico. One of the film’s earliest scenes has Zoe flag down a ride while hitchhiking. Her body language and attitude toward passing drivers more than competently shows that she’s untrusting and obviously dealing with some sort of severe trauma. I’m not going to give away what that trauma is, but it makes the scene uncomfortably tense.
I immediately began to worry about the character, and I hated to see her so vulnerable and alone. When she comes across Makana’s character, Silver, there’s an obvious and understandable distrust. Zoe is established so perfectly that you can quickly put yourself in her shoes. You want to trust Silver because she’s so likable and easygoing, but there’s something about her that just won’t let you commit to that trust. You experience what Zoe experiences and that relatability at such a high and masterful level is rare.
As the two become closer, Silver offers to take Zoe across the border despite the fact that Zoe is apparently on the run from someone or something. As the duo travels further south, Zoe is continually looking over her shoulder and experiencing night terrors and PTSD flashbacks. Zoe and Silver bond as friends (possibly more) and live like a couple of outlaws on the run, doing some morally questionable things like stealing gas from a rude and unhelpful human piece of garbage, and possibly performing minor acts of prostitution with a random trucker. It’s all in the name of getting just a few miles further down the road.
“…sets itself apart from the rest with its beautiful imagery and well-written characters.”
The film wonderfully develops Zoe and Silver’s relationship in a realistic and well-paced way. As Zoe begins to open up to Silver, she shares more about the circumstances that led her to live on the streets and risking her life to try and get to Mexico alone. The two leads are compelling and delightful, and it’s entertaining to ride along with them as they head to their destination. There aren’t a lot of other characters they encounter along the way, so it was crucial for these two actors to have tremendous chemistry. Watson and Makana pull off that chemistry almost flawlessly.
One criticism I do have with the movie is that throughout Zoe’s adventure you’re given brief visual glimpses of why Zoe is the way that she is, and these flashbacks are weak and cliché. It would have been much more useful to let the actress physically show the emotional toll her situation has on her. The old adage ‘show, don’t tell’ definitely applies in this instance. I know that the flashbacks are there to show the audience exactly what happened to Zoe that has her on edge and suffering night terrors, but the way it’s shown in the film feels a little too obvious.
Subtlety would have gone a long way, and a gradual reveal would have locked in a more natural extension of trust between Zoe and the somewhat nosey Silver. I also feel like the resolution and outcome of Zoe and Silver’s relationship feels like it sends a weirdly unclear message. The ending disappointed me. It came out of nowhere, and it just didn’t feel earned. It has a twist, which didn’t bother me, but I felt that the execution of the twist was clunky and poor. I’d still recommend the film based on the well-written and well-acted performances of the two leads and the stunning cinematography. Shadows on the Road is definitely one that’s worth checking out.
Shadows on the Road (2018) Directed by Noam Kroll. Written by Noam Kroll and Jennifer Stulberg. Starring Flavia Watson, Morgan Makana, Patrick J. Andersen, Josh Pafchek, Joe Coffey, Drew Hale, Lindsey Hutchison, Graham Selden
8 out of 10