In a small town somewhere in semi-rural Texas, where the leaves rustle underneath each step, and dark clouds seem to threaten the periphery at every moment, high school wrestler Brandon’s (Alex MacNicoll) life takes a swift left turn when he gets involved with Pearla (Addison Timlin) and her precarious lifestyle.
All Roads to Pearla focuses its attention not on the drama of organised crime in a hectic, urban environment, but instead on smaller — but no less dramatic — incidents that begin to seep into the edges of Brandon’s existence. The film opens with the aftermath of a car accident, in which a young man runs straight into the path of a car unclothed — a jarring and violent incident whose relevance only becomes clear in the final act, an unfortunate decision that rings hollow in an otherwise strong film.
Director Van Ditthavong allows the atmospheric surroundings of quiet trailer parks and testosterone-filled changing rooms to introduce this world of inertia that Brandon finds himself adrift. After his wrist is broken during a match, his desire to leave the town for the more prosperous El Paso becomes more pressing. Meanwhile across town Pearla, a young sex worker, is under the watchful eye of the violent pimp Oz (Dash Mihok), who assists in a brutal attack of Cowboy Loy (Corin Nemec). When Brandon and Pearla’s paths cross in a supermarket car park, an opportunity for Brandon to make easy money to bring his move across the state closer to reality quickly descends into a chaotic journey to the darker side of town.
While All Roads To Pearla does rely on several crime film tropes —the seductive femme fatale in distress, violent pimps and mysterious men with murder on the mind — it is the strength of the two leads that allows for the film to rise above a below average thriller. MacNicoll plays Brandon as a young man stuck not only by the geographical space he occupies, but also by the unspoken familial trauma that haunts his interaction with his mother. Their relationship is antagonistic, bordering on abusive as Brandon is left to all but fend for himself in a world that is increasingly hostile. This difficulty that singes every aspect of Brandon’s life and the loneliness that he faces in a world in which he doesn’t see much purpose is evident through MacNicoll’s subtle performance that is allowed be quiet in a film of brash characters.
As one of the few female characters, Pearla could easily be reduced to a simple stereotype: the sex worker with a heart of gold who wants to get out of a terrible situation. And to some extent, she is, in her lack of backstory or history, but as with MacNicoll’s performance Timlin elevates the character, allowing sparks of a personality to shine through. Yes, she is very much a woman in need of help, whose biting comebacks could read as an attempt to inject the much derided “strong female” characteristic into Pearla. Timlin though, brings a real vulnerability to Pearla’s situation and the strong, traumatic bond that develops with Brandon is out of a necessity; we are never left thinking that this is going to be a happy ending.
That’s not to say that All Roads to Pearla is perfect. A sub-plot involving the wrestling coach feels incidental, it does tie certain events in the film together but only late into the third act where it doesn’t really matter in the face of Brandon and Pearla’s plight. Without revealing the plot, the characters who are hellbent on revenge for the beating of Cowboy Loy are very shallow, again introduced late into the film with a whole backstory that is hinted at but not explored further. It gives the impression of having several scenes cut, which might have provided more of a satisfying conclusion if left in.
Nethertheless, Van Ditthavong’s debut feature film is a atmospherically and visually strong film, and hopefully will provide a successful springboard for his future efforts.
All Roads to Pearla will be available in select cinemas and on VOD in the US from September 25th
by Rose Dymock