Will (Ashton Sanders) is an orphaned boy who dutifully abides his uncle Marcus’ (Keston John) commands. As African-Americans living in Texas during the latter half of the 19th century, slavery will forever be a part of Will and Marcus’ history. White men like Burrell (Bill Obserst, Jr.), the leader of their traveling contingent, still control their lives and threaten them with violence if they disobey. It is Burrell who sends Will and Marcus on a dangerous journey northward to retrieve a runaway slave, Nate (Tishuan Scott); if their mission is not successful, they will most likely not live to tell about it.
As Will spends more and more time with Nate, he realizes that Nate would probably be a better father figure than Marcus. The quiet man might wield a deadly hatchet, but he also understands that you can’t raise a decent child with brute force. Nate begins to lay the groundwork for Will to develop and mature into an independent man. The problem is, Will has been trained to manipulate others in order to protect himself; his own survival comes first, which puts Nate’s well-being at risk.
As the one continuous character from beginning to end, writer-director Chris Eska’s The Retrieval serves as Will’s coming of age story. There is no denying that Will’s experiences during this journey will weigh on him greatly for the remainder of his life. Like the subject of a well-told proverb, Will is forced to learn about loyalty and trust while he navigates the dense moral grayness between society’s definitions of right and wrong. All the while, Will also explores the notion of family, contemplating whether blood is more important than someone who seems to really care about him.
Independent filmmakers have typically steered clear of historical dramas because of the unruly budgets that are associated with recreating accurate costume and production design, but that didn’t scare away Eska from making a Civil War drama. Eska enlisted the people who care most about historical accuracy, Civil War reenactors, to round out his cast and assist with the authenticity of the costume design and props. It also helps that The Retrieval is limited to only three primary characters who spend a majority of the film roaming across the densely wooded (and ageless) forests of East Texas. Eska’s unwavering desire to achieve perfection in his productions doesn’t hurt matters either, because the production quality of The Retrieval is damn near flawless. Speaking of flawless, that just about describes Ashton Sanders, Keston John and Tishuan Scott’s performances as well.