Much like the inspirational underdog sports movie, perhaps it's high time we lay off stories about a trio of wayward, rebellious youths torn apart by a love triangle. Desert Son starts with an intriguing prologue, where an unnamed man (Bill Oberst Jr.) drives out into the middle of the desert and abandons his stepson Phillip (John Bain) rather than taking him to a summer tennis camp. Yet, from the moment Phillip finds himself shacking with two angry runaways, it becomes painfully clear how most of the story is going to play out.
The first runaway, Lucy (Erica Curtis), is sympathetic to Phillip, giving him water and offering to let him stay (sadly, this is about the extent of her character, who ends up sidelined as the movie drags on). The other, Jack (Nathan Halliday), is threatened by the presence of someone else invading the little bubble he and Lucy have formed, especially a person who might catch Lucy's eye. The three of them cruise nearby houses for food and supplies, but tension between Jack and Phillip escalates, no matter how diplomatic Phillip tries to be.
The role of Jack is a loud, obnoxious one, the kind that only works when written with absolute precision. Philosophizers are a dime a dozen, especially in movies, and without some genuine wisdom to offer, characters like Jack become annoying in a real hurry, and Jack's theories on life are questionable at best and confusingly bitter at worst. Since Jack has only hints and allusions in place of a real backstory, it's impossible to understand why he is the way he is, and he ends up coming off less like a cynical realist and more like the same kind of spoiled brat he accuses Phillip of being. I suppose that might be the point, but the film stays frustratingly objective; while it may seem obvious that Jack is talking out of his ass, many films agree or sympathize with their philosophizers, and co-director/writer James Mann ought to pick a side. Halliday's performance doesn't help matters either; although some of his decisions spring from the nature of role, he comes from the school of thought that smarminess and volume are an appealing combination, and over-enunciating indicates a dangerous, bitter anger.
In terms of the script, there isn't much else in the way of conflict for the audience to latch onto, although Mann throws in a bunch of religious allusions for little to no apparent reason. Jack takes Phillip to a mildly deranged priest (Elvis Winterbottom) who also lives in the desert, and who aggressively baptizes Phillip. Although Jack seems to plotted the trip to the priest with the hope that the baptism will scare Phillip back to where he came from, Jack forces everyone to return to the priest after a major incident, presumably looking for some sort of guidance. Since Jack is meant to be refuting the idea of family and authority, this is another place where Mann ought to elaborate on Jack, particularly why Jack cares what the priest thinks, but no such explanation ever materializes. At least Mann is a skilled cinematographer; visually, the film is on par with a major studio production. The film is also well-paced by Editor John Arlotto, and the direction (Brandon Nicholas being the other co-director) is solid.
The nature of screenwriting is fractured and incomplete. As someone who has tried their hand at it (and who hasn't?), ideas rarely manifest themselves from beginning to end. The problem with the low-budget process is that it allows filmmakers to make movies that haven't been thoroughly "vetted" by outside sources, and the result is that the same piecemeal nature remains on screen. Desert Son starts with Phillip's abandonment, segues to Jack's increasing instability, tiptoes around a runaway romance, and ends on a dark note that doesn't provide closure for anyone;
Breaking Glass Pictures sent over a screener in a paper sleeve, so I can't assess the packaging for this release.
The Video and Audio
Desert Son is afforded a generally impressive 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Many of the movie's scenes take place at night or in thick darkness, but, although the occasional artifacts are visible, there's comparatively quite a bit less noise and blocking than I've seen on numerous other recent DVD releases. Other than that, there's a digitally blurry shot here and there, but on the whole, this is a pristine-looking transfer of a modern motion picture. Meanwhile, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound makes atmospheric use of the surrounds via an understated, eerie score by Zoe Keating. It's not exceptionally immersive, but it gets the job done without excessive effort. No subtitles or captions are provided, but a 2.0 audio track is also available.
The extras kick off with a short behind-the-scenes featurette (5:25) featuring interviews with the cast and crew. A quick and pleasant watch. Three deleted scenes follow (1:12, 1:21, 1:29), all of which are pretty negligible. A Desert Scenery Montage (3:28) and photo gallery finish off the video extras.
Finally, under the audio menu, one can select an audio commentary by co-director/producer/writer James Mann and co-director/production designer Brandon Nicholas. Even as someone who disliked the film itself, the pair are engaging speakers. Occasionally, they end up explaining the story beats on screen and their conversation starts to peter out a little bit as the track goes on, but it's a good listen.
Trailers for Easier With Practice, Sex and the USA, and Mad World are included, as well as Desert Son's original theatrical trailer.
Mann and Nicholas may have a future in filmmaking, as Desert Son is certainly watchable, but the promise of a young cast and an interesting setting are squandered on tired love-triangle and youth drama cliches and overly loud performances. That said, the package itself contains solid A/V and an informative commentary, so the disc earns a rental if you're really interested.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.