Grace (Eva Amurri) has the grades for college, but not the money. Her mother, Rhonda (Susan Sarandon, Amurri's real mother) is responsible for her financial predicament, having taken out several credit cards in her name in order to sustain the family (which also includes Willa Holland as Grace's sister Taylor) following the suicide of Grace's father. In a hopeless attempt to earn the money before the tuition deadline, Grace takes a job at a local water park, where she meets Dorian Spitz (Anton Yelchin), a local pot dealer who eventually offers her a cut of the cash to be his driver.
Hollywood is awash in nepotism, and rarely a month goes by without some sort of project involving a famous person's son or daughter, and the Coppola dynasty aside, most of these people fail to live up to those that came before them. The biggest and most obvious problem is that simply handing a project off to your son or daughter doesn't allow them to take the journey naturally, and I imagine a lot of people find themselves out of their depth despite having everything they could possibly need at their disposal, simply because they didn't earn it. I have not had much exposure to Eva Amurri previously (the most I knew about her up to this point is that she's close friends with Olivia Munn), but Middle of Nowhere ranks as a solid start for Amurri, as well as many of her fellow up-and-coming cast members.
For instance, Anton Yelchin already has roles in two high-profile franchises (Star Trek and Terminator) under his belt, something which presumably allows him to take on a more substantial role in an independent movie like this without any concerns about its financial success (or lack of it) hurting his career. The no-stakes attitude shows on screen: Dorian is a smart and enthusiastic yet relaxed and funny guy, and Yelchin soft-sells him to the audience instead of hastily tripping into caricature. There's quite a bit of family drama for both Grace and Dorian here, and it would be both really easy and really disappointing to get yet another funny-on-the-outside, wounded-on-the-inside jokester. Instead, any aspiring actors out there reading this should take note of the way he underplays it, something that I didn't even realize was painfully rare until I was watching him in this movie.
The screenplay, by first-timer Michelle Morgan, is a study in cause-and-effect. Dorian pushes himself on Grace a little bit, so Grace turns to Ben (Justin Chatwin), an impossibly content, passive rich kid that Grace is attracted to. When Dorian pushes again, Grace pushes back, and Dorian finds himself falling into Taylor, who realizes from the moment she sees Dorian that he is endlessly more interesting than the modeling her mother is pushing her into (by pushing on her sister Mindy (Jeannetta Arnette). All of these conflicts occur without any overt machinations of the plot, stupid misunderstandings, or (best of all) a wholly unnecessary romance between the two characters. I can't think of the last time I saw a movie with male and female friends (much less teenaged ones) that didn't eventually blossom into a romance, but it's unbelievably relieving to not have it as the lazy catalyst driving the third act.
Director John Stockwell (who played the young, Paul Walker v1.0-esque hero in John Carpenter's Christine and eventually went onto direct the actual Paul Walker in the surprisingly passable Into the Blue) is content to let his movie breathe, showing a few touches of style in the montage sequences and the scenes at the water park, but doesn't impose himself over the characters. There are some flaws here and there. Sarandon's character occasionally slips into cliched territory as the mom who thinks everyone but herself is unreasonable and often guilt-trips Grace and Taylor when they express any hint of personal desires, but even she saves herself in a well-done confrontation scene, and the whole movie finds a satisfying way to tie up its loose ends without cheating. Middle of Nowhere is not an ambitious masterpiece, but they've hired a good director to shoot a good script, and by the time the movie ends, I'm sure most viewers will have forgotten all about the fact that Eva Amurri has an "in" in this business.
The DVD, Video, Audio, and Extras
Image provided a screener of Middle of Nowhere for review. I guess I sort of know what the DVD cover is going to look like: a faceless woman in a bathing suit in a bright blue pool (despite the main characters never going into the pool in the movie, and even if they had, it'd be in lifeguard gear), with four "Polaroid" photos of the cast laid over it in a really lazy fashion. They also used the worst picture of Eva Amurri imaginable. My copy has a banner that says "FULL LENGTH SCREENER" which I doubt will be on the retail versions.
A little poking around on the internet suggests that final product will include a making-of featurette, cast and crew interviews, deleted scenes, and the movie's original theatrical trailer. Should Image deem me worthy of recieving said product -- I'd take it in either DVD or Blu-Ray, by the way -- the review will be updated.
A satisfying little comedy/drama, Middle of Nowhere isn't the kind of movie that blow the viewer away with style or offer up any major revelations about the world as a whole, but it's not a vanity project for Amurri, and it avoids the pratfalls of both the increasingly tired "quirky indie" and most stories about teens. This is a well-acted, well-made, emotionally satisfying journey that should please any audience. Highly recommended.
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