There are certain things that will always be ripe for artistic exploration, and adolescent angst is one of them. West Michigan is one of the latest movies to explore the challenges of teendom, this time through the eyes of 17-year-old Hannah (Chloe Ray Warmoth), who’s both wise beyond her years and utterly lost. While the movie hits some familiar notes, a fantastic central performance, quiet moments that evoke deep meaning and a specific sense of place set West Michigan apart.
When the film starts, Hannah has isolated herself in a bathroom in her house, where according to her 22-year-old brother Charlie (Riley Warmoth, Chloe’s real-life brother, who also wrote and directed the film), she’s been for three hours. Hannah claims she’s reading but she’s also brought a pair of scissors into the bathroom with her, and it seems like she may be trying to work up the nerve to hurt herself. Charlie is worried about Hannah but doesn’t know how to talk about his concerns with her, and soon, they’re distracted by more immediate problems. Their ailing grandfather, who lives elsewhere in the title state, is in the hospital and the siblings have been summoned to his bedside.
It’s their road trip to their grandfather’s hometown that takes up the bulk of the movie’s runtime. Like most teens, Hannah’s attached to her phone, but her digital interactions don’t seem to make her happy. Instead, she’s angry at her best friend and consistently dodging calls from her ex-boyfriend Tyler (Isaac James Thornsen). And things only get darker for Hannah when the siblings’ car breaks down in rural Michigan, forcing them to camp overnight while waiting for the mechanic to repair it.
Hannah is preoccupied with figuring out what’s meaningful to her, but she doesn’t seem to be finding solace in the traditional things, like religion or family. Moreover, her isolation from people her own age makes her even more desperate, although seemingly less capable, of determining what makes life worthwhile. A fitting but surprising twist towards the movie’s midpoint demonstrates just how depressed Hannah truly is, but luckily she manages to find some sense of belonging after running away from her brother and into three fellow teens (Seth Lee, Sydney Agudong, Berkley Bragg), whom she bonds with after they ask her to join their camping party.
West Michigan is spare and focused. There aren’t many characters or a whole lot of action, and the story is squarely centered on Hannah’s journey, yet that story is gently moving and is backed up by the lovely landscapes in which much of the film is set. Chloe Ray Warmoth gives a sensational lead performance, her expressive face conveying volumes with just an arch of her eyebrow. She’s fascinating to watch, and even though Hannah’s not always likable, especially during her interactions with her older brother, the actress manages to make her sympathetic throughout the film.
As a writer and director Riley Warmoth leans into Hannah and Charlie’s sibling dynamic, loading many of the pair’s brief conversations with subtext that will be recognizable to anyone who loves a family member they don’t quite know how to communicate with. He also wisely lets several key, dialogue-free moments in the story linger in a way that conveys more than words ever could. West Michigan is a recognizable coming-of-age story told through a unique lens that makes for an understated yet poignant viewing experience.