Reviews Short Narrative

Where to now? (2020) – 2 stars

Director: Brady Bryson

Writer: Brady Bryson

Cast: Leven Rambin, Neil Holland, Annie Pisapia

Running time:  21mins

Over 50,000 fatal road accidents occur most years in the US – but there is no outcry levelled at the motor industry, or the government. When future historians look back at the weirdness of our times, I am sure that they will be puzzled that ordinary people manoeuvring tons of metal at speed would be responsible for the deaths of thousands of their fellow citizens, and that that situation was still regarded as normal. In much the same way as we today are baffled by foot-binding and chattel slavery.

When a movie’s opening shot is a Christmas tree, with the camera then panning to show us a middle-aged man sleeping on a living room couch, one has an intimation that the upcoming cinema experience is not going to be a barrel of laughs. And so, it is with Brady Bryson’s mawkish – and curiously unambitious – Where to Now? The film’s theme is of lives torn apart by a road accident: a fatal intrusion by a stranger into the world of a nuclear family, that leads to death and bereavement.

It’s to Bryson’s credit that he has tried to make a film about the tragedies that can and do impact on us all and has made it in a humdrum everyday environment – the movie is filmed in suburban New Jersey. But surely it did not have to be filmed in such a boring manner – as if when one is portraying the tragic one is bound by almost all known cinematic conventions. The film’s production values are bland throughout. The cinematography is competent and bland. The score is unassuming and bland. The editing is predictable and bland. Mercifully, the acting is at least credible.

The man on the couch is Barry (played by Neil Holland). Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Barry’s wife and child were mortalities in an earlier motor-collision. The film shows Barry at work in the present and past. We see him helping his wife through her bereavement after the death of her mother – establishing he is a regular decent guy who the audience should empathise with. Then pow! A swerving car turns his world upside-down.

The work sequences establish that Barry held some sort of white-collar job, but the trauma of loss has led to him to take a job as a very put-upon counterhand in a fast-food restaurant. Bryson shows us the family home – a quintessentially aspirational detached suburban house bedecked with Christmas bunting – think It’s a Wonderful Life. Barry pulls up in his car, a newish Audi (presumably beyond the means of a minimum wage counterhand), ponders and then drives away. The audience are led to think he is visiting his old house to relive his memories after he has fallen on Hard Times. But then we ask ourselves – hey weren’t we just been shown Barry waking up on the couch in the very same house in the meta-now?  In general, the plot is as ponderous and predictable as assembling a Lego set but it appears to comes off the rails at this point.

The filmmaker’s most disastrous call comes when he has Barry visit his wife’s and child’s graves. Bryson uses the scene as an absurdly transparent plot device to pack in as much expository narrative detail as possible. He has Barry talk in measured conversational tones at considerable length to each grave in turn. The scene is both excruciating and ludicrous. There is a myriad of different ways to grieve, but Bryson has Holland play it deadpan, in control of his emotions – raving with grief or an internal monologue would be believable, but this approach is detached to the point of being laughable. The scene is so bizarre it completely undermines the decent work that Holland had previously put in to establish Barry’s character.

Bryson divides the film into two halves. After the graveyard fiasco, he moves on to shows us the other half of our tragedy – the Fatal Stranger who has caused the crash. We meet Max, played by Leven Rambin – a fine actor who puts in an accomplished and engaging performance. Max is a troubled soul. We see her having a row with her grandmother who she lives with and who asks her to leave – would you know it – on Christmas Eve. After the row, Max takes herself to the local bar, where, in screenplay shorthand for dangerous young woman, she is drinking spirits on her own. I enjoyed the long and meandering conversation Max has with the bartender (a warm and empathic performance from Annie Pisapia). Both the bar scene and the fracas with the grandmother are sharply scripted, and show that writer-director Bryson can do believable dialogue.

But then pow! Seen this time through the eyes of the Fatal Stranger, Bryson gives us a sanitised crash– we are certainly not in Ballard/Cronenberg territory. In this very decorous movie, even the corpses are neatly arranged. To its credit, Where to Now? still manages to end with a half-decent Hitchcockian turn, but after the film’s many ill-judged attempts to stimulate my tear ducts, my reaction was to shrug my shoulders and think… ‘so it goes.’

It is hard not to come away from this film feeling like you have been force-fed the bland gruel of a daytime TV soap simulacrum. However, in parts of Where to Now? Brady Bryson does show that he has rudimentary screenwriting skills and the ability to coax good performances from his actors – enough to say there is a foundation to build upon. If he would be more willing to experiment in future outings, and serve up something new and fresh, there is hope. But he really must remove himself from many of the tiresome tropes on display here. For example, please note that for the majority of your audience, a child’s death on Christmas Eve is no more tragic than on any of the other 364 days of the year. Oh, and try and stay away from depictions of people talking to gravestones.

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