"When you stick to the simple action and the characters, your story is really gripping. When you make these little asides--or play on words, as you like to call them--you have a tendency to get a little sentimental."
Late into Redwoods, the main character turns to his love interest and compliments the novelist's writing: "It's so sparse...that's what makes it so powerful." You get the sense that writer/director David Lewis was aiming for the same effect with his film, a small effort that seems unapologetically singular in its purpose. I wanted to be swept away in the romantic intentions of Redwoods--really, I did. I'm not averse to severe displays of sentimentality, but the sap that flows from this gay-themed love story is so thick and slow, I was almost immediately immune to its painfully choreographed clichés.
It's obvious in the opening minutes that young accountant Everett (Brendan Bradley) is in a rut with partner Miles (Tad Coughenour), their mechanical interactions centered on shower mold and coupon clipping. After years together, the passion has fizzled out from their quiet life in a small Northern California town. But the two have stuck it out, probably for the sake of special-needs son Billy (a quiet Caleb Dorfman). When Miles takes Billy on a trip to visit family in Seattle, the contemplative Everett is left alone--and right on cue drives up stranger Chase (gay indie everyman Matthew Montgomery), a writer lost on his way into town. Their initial awkward interaction signals mutual attraction, which threatens to shatter Everett's structured, comfortable life.
That's the force driving Redwoods, which is anything but subtle in technique and purpose during its slow-moving 78 minutes. There are a lot of problems here, but the biggest is the chemistry between the two leads--and the overall level of acting. Most of the lines are too careful and rehearsed, delivered like the performers are reading and not acting--frequent pauses, inflections and emphasis destroy any hope at authenticity.
It doesn't help that many of the lines come from the Motivational Poster and Greeting Card School of Schmaltz. Exhibit A: "If I keep doing what I love [insert long pause for effect]...then everything will work out." Exhibit B: "Wounds can take a long time to heal, son." Bradley also relies too much on a physical gimmick--Everett is permanently frozen in a "Mary Katherine Gallagher pose", with one hand nervously gripping the elbow of his other arm--to sell his character's insecurity and fear, a trait that becomes distracting.
Montgomery is a little more comfortable with his role, but it doesn't help that the two never really gel--if the chemistry here was through the roof, I'd be able to forgive the film's other flaws. But--like virtually everything else in Redwoods--it feels forced (and the consummation of their relationship is marked by an abrupt hand-guide to the groin...what happened to foreplay, fellas?!). The two aren't done any favors by the script, which throws every romantic drama cliché at us. You get a tacked on voiceover in the beginning ("I'll always remember the first time I saw the redwoods. That was the day my life began..."), a corny bit involving keys and hearts, parallels with Chase's novel about escaping a small-town ranch and finding his way in life, many groan-inducing exchanges ["I have plans tomorrow (insert long pause for effect)...with you!]" and an ending that hinges on a promise and a "Five Years Later" epilogue that unfolds without an ounce of originality.
None of the periphery relationships help, either--Everett finds similarities to his predicament with his mom Tess (Elinor Bell), who may have lost the spark with husband Woodsen (Cole Panther). But it's a subplot that's nothing more than a convenient coincidence, and the characters are mostly wasted (Bell also gets to deliver the worst line of the film: "DeeDee, you are hiding something...and it isn't just cards!").
Something also feels out of place with Everett's partner and son; you never get the sense that this is a real family, and Dorfman is perhaps too old for the role. Despite the script's best intent to convince you otherwise, you don't feel a genuine connection between Everett and Billy--a fact reinforced by the film's worst scene (which unfolds near the end). It involves some melodramatic leg grabbing (a technique usually reserved for parodies and comedy sketches) and some ridiculous behavior from Everett: Apparently forgetting that his son doesn't speak (?!), he pleads for an adult answer in an effort to excuse his own juvenile behavior. I wanted to laugh as it played out, but I was so shocked at its awfulness that I just stared slack-jawed at the screen. (This is Everett's movie--Miles and Billy are surprisingly disposable.)
Simon Burzynski has a role as Everett's brother Shane, the requisite "straight dude" who likes to call Everett "bro". It's a role apparently inserted for the sole purpose of playing to the gay male fantasy of bonding with straight men (NOT of incest, which the film toys with...more on that later!). And that's just the tip of the marketing iceberg: Redwoods is clearly constructed with the Joe Q. Consumer in mind (the Q stands for "queer"). The film comes to a standstill at various points because of it, taking us out of the story to wink at those horny, fashion-conscious homos. I lost count of the shots that prominently displayed designer jeans (Diesel gets the most props, but Rock & Republic makes an appearance), while the phallic imagery--something I usually dismiss--reached near laugh-inducing proportions in two shots.
But even worse is the random full-frontal nudity in two sequences. I can forgive the first shot in the opening scene with Miles, but the sequence where Shane--in conversation with his brother--decides to bare all and jump into a hot tub (with Everett watching and his mother inside hosting a dinner party!) is inexcusable, an insult to the intelligence of gay viewers tired of the directive that we need to see penis to enjoy a film ("Shane, you know mom doesn't want you doing this when there's company here!"). I have nothing against penis, but when it's this blatant, it deserves admonishment. (You also get a tickle fight and a mishap involving a garden sprinkler just after Everett and Chase change into their tank tops...how convenient!).
Everett isn't done any favors by the editing, which results in a few (unintentionally?) funny moments: "Damn, bro, you've got discipline!" says Shane, complimenting his brother's loyalty to Miles as he refuses to submit to his lusty thoughts for Chase. "No, I just have responsibility," answers Everett. "There's this line; I can't cross it..." (The scene is immediately followed by Everett making out on the couch with Chase.) Lewis has more problems behind the camera--the shots are composed to maximum maudlin effect, stripping the film of any honesty as it tries to pull at your heartstrings. That's never more obvious than in a shot where Montgomery--rolling around in bed with Bradley--seems to go out of his way to find the right spot in the light to perfectly highlight the solo tear stream that cascades down his nose.
Another scene features Everett--on the phone with his partner--placing his hand on Chase's shoulder from behind, his first display of physical affection. Not only is the moment ruined by Everett's callousness to Miles, it's also destroyed by Montgomery's reaction--his over-dramatic acknowledgment (a change in facial expression and a tilt of the head) leads me to believe that very little is thought of us viewers, as if we won't "get" the importance without the exaggerated visual cues.
Lewis attempts to tie these fractured relationships--and the lost characters' struggles to find their way in life--to the strong and powerful redwoods ("Wow, they make you feel so...insignificant"), and the location shoot in Guerneville provides some beautiful shots. But the comparison ultimately works against the film--the trees are assured, confident and natural, while Redwoods is anything but. That may be Lewis' point, but he doesn't do anything with it. There are no surprises along the way--the Alphabet Song is less predictable than this film--and we've seen everything here before (in misfires from both mainstream and gay cinema).
Early on in the film, Shane turns to his brother and says: "You gotta make a mess of things sometimes." Sadly, Lewis and his cast took that advice a tad too literally, which is disappointing because it's clear the intentions here were admirable. I've seen many disposable films that never had a chance--this one does, which makes the failure all the more painful. There's heart here, but in the end it's far too sappy for its own good.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is decent, although a tad dim and dull; I wish the lush landscapes were given a more bold presentation, but there's nothing majorly wrong with the image (and Lewis seems to have intentionally opted for that "earthy" look). The biggest drawback is some noise that's more apparent and distracting in some scenes, especially when it's on the actors' faces. Some of the darker scenes also illustrate off black levels and grain.
The 2.0 track is modest and has no major problems, although some of the lines feel too "separated", like they're in a chamber--but that's only in certain scenes (like those in the antique shop). A few (unimportant) sound effects also feel more distant than they should. But the dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, so nothing detracts from the overall enjoyment of the film.
Leading the way is a collection of 14 deleted scenes (14:41), including some that would have been decent inclusions in the film (like those that allow Everett's father a little more screen time--including a scene where he utters the line "Tiger Woods ain't got nothing on you!", which has newfound awkwardness). Most of the scenes don't offer much, and the two that include the character DeeDee just highlight the film's worst acting. There's another clip involving Shane in the hot tub (sigh...really?!), and another scene that pushes that incest envelope a little further: "You know what? Blow me!" says Shane to his brother. "And as a matter of fact, you can blow me twice for blowing off our fishing day yesterday!" Responds Everett: "Alright! Keep it in your pants!" (At which point I envision Winona Ryder's parents in Heathers: "You two!")
The behind the scenes (1:25) clip is actually two bloopers (nothing too funny), while Interview with Matthew Montgomery (4:53) features Robby-O of website Homopop.com interviewing the actor in a semi-staged chat that covers how the actor creates chemistry on camera, growing up in Texas and "shrinkage" on set. The film's trailer, a photo gallery and trailers for other TLA releases are also included.
I want to like Redwoods. In the world of gay indie transgressions, the mistakes it makes are minor. I don't come close to disliking it like I have many other similar efforts, but it's amateurish on too many levels--with no aspect strong enough to compensate for the other failings. The cast and crew are too obvious in their execution, forcing things too much. There's nothing natural here, and the predictable film fails to provide any surprises--it's small and simple...but filled with far too much sap for me to recommend. Skip It, unless you're a sucker for clichéd romance and sentimentality (in which case you may mildly enjoy it via a rental).