Because of a major accident on the main highway, a young couple decides to take a “haunted” detour to save themselves a little time in Ali Matlock’s short film Roadside Assistance. Matlock revisits the favorite trope of a mysterious road at night…while driving black.
Justin (James Duke) and Amy (Annie-Sage Whitehurst) are heading home late at night. Amy is in the passenger seat as Justin seems frustrated that she fell asleep on him. Amy is a little disoriented because they are no longer on the main highway but on some back road and a haunted one at that. You see, a boy died long ago, and his ghost haunts the secluded road. A little creeped out, Amy checks on their baby in the back seat.
As would happen on every long-haunted road trip, Amy needs to urinate, and then their car is running low on gas. With no relief in sight, Justin pulls over so Amy can relieve herself. As Justin waits, a mysterious car pulls up and the driver with a mild southern accent, speaking with mild religious colloquialisms, asks if he could use some assistance and warns that he should not be on this road so late at night. Justin says no and the car pulls away. When Amy returns, the car won’t start. Justin looks for help spies a car sitting there just a few hundred feet down the road.
“…they are no longer on the main highway but on some back road and a haunted one at that.”
It’s here the tension mounts as to whether the couple is in for a supernatural thriller experience as the secluded forest is full of mind games or if this is a racially-motivated horror experience as this is an inter-racial couple with Justin being black and Amy being white. Suffice it to say, the short ends with a Twilight Zone sort of ending.
As a short film, Roadside Assistance has a few problems from a storytelling standpoint. Starting with the good, James Duke and Annie-Sage Whitehurst give two excellent performances as the lead couple. Many actors use short films as a way to build their resume for bigger things, and James and Annie took their roles to heart and created a believable couple that is fond of one another, yet hiding secrets too.
From a story standpoint, I’m not sure the twist at the end was compelling enough (all thriller/horror shorts have a twist at the end). While I got the film’s point, I’m not confident the plot elements leading up to it made sense and it took a while to figure out what I had just seen. If a more significant social message was trying to be told, it was lost; and if this was just meant to be a horror/thriller, it lacked a serious storytelling punch for the genre.
“…James Duke and Annie-Sage Whitehurst give two excellent performances as the lead couple.”
The cinematography was a little inconsistent. Effort needed to be made to ensure shots had a consistent natural flow as they are laid out next to one another. For example, the wide shots of the front of the car with the two leads couple and the single close-ups were shot clearly and with a steady stabilized image. In contrast, outdoor shots and particularly the camera from the back seat POV were not clear, nor stable. When a scene jumps between front view and rear seat view, the two images feel like they came from two different films. I will say though, it’s tough to film in the outdoors let alone at night, and the lighting choices made were perfect.
The last criticisms are basically super nit-picky and mentioned only to bear in mind for the next time. One, the dialogue from the man in the mysterious car, sounded like a voice-over recorded in post-production and not onsite. Second, there’s a music build that felt like it was there to manipulate us as an audience, rather than inform the feelings of tension in the character, Amy. In other words, the music and Amy’s reaction were mutually exclusive from one another.
Ultimately, I’m just a little confused whether this is a straight-out horror or a short with a social/racial message behind it.
Roadside Assistance (2018) Directed by Ali Matlock. Written by Ali Matlock, Jubei Powers. Starring Annie Sage Whitehurst, James Duke Walker, Jess Prichard.
5 out of 10 stars