Writer-director Jesse Edwards makes his feature-length debut with the western actioner Alta Valley. Lupe (Briza Covarrubias), a Mexican-Navajo mechanic, is in dire need of some fast cash. The money is for an operation that’ll save her dying mother’s life. With few options for help, Lupe sets out on a journey to discover her father and beg him for help. Well, that proves easier said than done, as Lupe runs across the rambunctious Maddy (Allee Sutton Hethcoat).
Maddy is on the run from a Mexican mob boss, but her quick way with a gun and sheer confidence intrigue the desperate mechanic. Maddy agrees to help Lupe get to Alta Valley and meet her dad. Once there, the two uncover a plot to sell the valley out from under the natives. Now, Lupe must contend with the fact that her father, Carl (Micah Fitzgerald), is a backstabbing, murderous psycho. Can she get the money to save her mom, help the indigenous people of the land, and escape the harmful clutches of Carl?
Alta Valley runs a little long, at one hour and 45 minutes. A dance routine, while amusing, could be trimmed significantly. Also, the action sequence introducing Lupe to Maddy feels a little padded. Maddy brawls with mob goons and escapes the backroom, only to see Lupe pointing a gun at her. This escalates things further and is awkwardly played for laughs, something the rest of the film doesn’t do much of. See, that backroom the kingpin is operating out of is attached to a gun store. So Maddy’s surprise at seeing someone with a gun feels off.
“…the two uncover a plot to sell the valley out from under the natives.”
With all that out of the way, the vast majority of the film is pretty amazing. Covarrubias is electrifying as Lupe. She ranges the gamut from meek to strong and funny to stoic. If there’s justice in the filmmaking world, this will lead to many more roles for the actor. Hethcoat is just as good as the shoot first, ask questions later, Maddy. She’s brilliant in the action beats, and a last-minute reveal is handled perfectly by her. The supporting cast surrounding them is just as good, with Fitzgerald being especially hatable as the big bad.
Alta Valley is one of those films where fate mysteriously brings everyone together. The brilliant part about Edwards’ storytelling structure is how he slowly doles out answers. Things become more personal and involved for the two leads, and the more invested they become, so too does the audience.
By far, the most impressive element of this modern western is its cinematography. Edwards worked as the director of photography, among his several duties on set, and has ensured each moment pops off the screen. The colors are vibrant, the lighting moody, and the camera movements immaculate. The filmmaker wrings as much suspense and atmosphere out of the visuals as possible, elevating the film to a higher level.
Alta Valley has a few issues; some scenes go on too long or don’t always make sense. But, the characters are well written, the cinematography is unbelievably excellent, and the cast is uniformly strong. The film signals bigger and better things are all involved.
For screening information, visit the Alta Valley official website.
"…wrings as much suspense and atmosphere out of the visuals as possible..."