What Lies West is a battlefield on which the screenplay’s earnest human insights war against the film’s inherent formal limitations. The ultra-low-budget feature was clearly made with love, but also under such restrictive stylistic and technical circumstances that it becomes difficult to look past those distractions and into the eyes of the characters. It’s hard not to develop a certain affection for a film with such lovely humanist intentions, but it’s impossible to ignore the transparently artificial cinematic environment in which those intentions are realized.
“Artificial” is a relative term in this case, since some of the film’s locations are very authentic, indeed, with most of the exterior sequences shot across beautiful Sonoma County, CA. But it’s more the general suspension of disbelief that’s the problem, plagued by a budget that doesn’t permit the use of functional interior locations and limits the scope of otherwise-suitable exteriors. Most of the interior sequences in the film are shot in spaces too cramped to frame an adequate two shot. And even the lovely exteriors don’t feel as expansive as they should, likely the result of a crunch in time and money. While those circumstances are often the reality of independent filmmaking, they’re particularly deflating in a film with such a big heart at its center, and particularly problematic in one that’s about broadening one’s horizons.
The horizons in question belong to Nicolette (Nicolette Kaye Ellis) and Chloe (Chloe Moore), whose paths cross as both seem on the precipice of either finding or losing themselves, even though they are in entirely different stages of life. Fresh out of college, Nicolette aims to move to Los Angeles in order to realize her dream of becoming an actress, but she needs a summer job to fund the move. Chloe is an awkward 16-year-old sheltered by a hypervigilant mother who scrupulously follows every alarmist PC trend. They’re brought together when Nicolette is hired as Chloe’s babysitter, spending a summer together that is punctuated with a long hike to the Pacific Ocean, during which they both confront the realities of who they are and ponder the pathways to become who they want to be.
The coming-of-age framework is quite familiar, but there is clearly an intriguing subtext built among and between these characters that keeps things interesting. In her first feature, writer-director Jessica Ellis demonstrates an interest in and affection for the quirky and varied dynamics of a life in transition. Chloe – quiet, brooding, defiant – craves an untethered experience in the real world but is inhibited after years of living in a sheltered environment. Nicolette, bubbly and outgoing, is more open to boundless opportunity, but in a way, she’s sheltered herself. In attempting to chart a path to stardom via facile Instagram influencing, she wants to attain real fame through a manufactured image. The ways in which these characters’ fears and desires dovetail is intriguing, and Ellis seems to know them intimately.
It’s hard to stay focused on the characters, however, when the world they inhabit seems to be glitching cinematically. Some of issues are based on the limitations of time and budget, like cramped sets that lead to tight frames. Others – like the frequent lack of adequate production design and the relentlessly choppy editing of even simple dialogue scenes – could’ve been resolved regardless of the resources at hand. There are times, frankly, where What Lies West feels like an unpolished short submission at a festival. But then again, what’s the point of a festival submission if not to discover talent for future projects? Ellis has clear character insights and an interesting point of view. I look forward to seeing what’s next for her, as her talent evolves and she finds the craft to support it.