Movie Reviews

What Lies West movie review & film summary (2021)

What prevents this gossamer-delicate movie from evaporating is the complicated friendship between 16-year-old Chloe (Chloe Moore), an incoming high school junior, and Nicolette (Nicolette Ellis), a recent college graduate who has been hired to mind Chloe during the day while her single mother is working. Nicolette studied acting and has been invited to join a group of her college friends, who went to Hollywood instantly after graduation to “make it.” 

She has chosen instead to stay in her hometown and work to save money while building up her image on social media, in hopes of becoming an Instagram “influencer” (which she believes will make her more cast-able when she does go to Los Angeles). Chloe is a sullen, nearly-silent girl when we first meet her, pretty clearly in (mild) rebellion against her mother Anne (Annie Peterson), who’s so wildly overprotective that you know she’s projecting her own traumas onto her child before she gives Nicolette a glimpse of her mania (a great scene, superbly acted by Peterson and the Ellis the younger). Chloe’s mute brooder routine starts to recede once she storms out of the house and walks into the park across the street, only to be followed by Nicolette, who is anxious and annoyed but not unsupportive. Nicolette seems conscious that the girl is being driven by forces not entirely within her grasp.

There’s a subplot involving Nicolette’s lingering crush on an ex-boyfriend, Alex (Jack Vicenty), the well-off son of a local restaurateur who is connected in showbiz (though probably not to the extent that he makes it seem while trying to mesmerize women). The stuff involving Nicolette and Alex is acutely observed, particularly the way Alex exploits his privilege and uses people. But it comes close to derailing the film’s focus on the central friendship in the first half of the film. (It feels like a stub from a different movie, maybe a sequel about Nicolette in Hollywood.) 

Fortunately, the director settles in and focuses on the main duo as they prepare to undertake a 40-mile hike to the sea, following a route mapped out in a drawing by Chloe (and previewed in the charming animated opening credits). Ellis and cinematographer Sean Carroll focus on the characters and performances, though things open up visually once Nicolette and Chloe begin their journey (which is also a metaphor for their burgeoning independence from the expectations of others). Even without the underground theater/film tradition of giving lead characters the same first names as their actors, it would be clear from the lived-in performances by near-unknowns that this is a labor of love, built around the personalities and inclinations of the actors and crew. (“You haven’t left the house,” says Nicolette’s mother, by way of complaining that she hasn’t found a job yet. “That’s because the Internet exists,” Nicolette says, with a tone that suggests that she’s barely managed to prevent her eyes from rolling clear into the back of her head.)

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