SXSW 2014 Review: SEQUOIA Rises High
Suicide can be a pretty tough subject to tackle in film. Nine times out of ten, a "will they/won't they" drama suffers from the major flaw of deflated stakes as the audience is smart enough to figure out the filmmaker isn't very likely to kill his or her protagonist. So it is actually rather refreshing when Sequoia's protagonist Riley (Aly Michalka) swallows a lethal cocktail of prescription pills in the film's first act. Yep. She's going to go through with it.
The drugs are going to take some eight hours to take effect, giving Riley the time to say goodbye to her sister at their predetermined farewell spot in Sequoia National Park. That is, until her sister calls to let her know she wrecked her dad's car and won't be coming. Distraught, Riley turns to the only person within 100 miles she knows, a shy traveler named Ogden (Dustin Milligan) she met on a bus the previous day. As Riley tries to convince Ogden to take her to the lookout, a bond forms between them, and she eventually let's him in her secret: terminal cancer.
While the subject matter is dark, the film plays out as an indie dramedy. Most of the comic elements come from her dysfunctional family, played by Joey Lauren Adams, Todd Lowe, Sophi Bairley, and Demetri Martin, as they race to try to save the day (alerted by Riley's compromised sister). But Riley herself has a dry sardonic wit, captured perfectly by Michalka. This tone is one of Sequoia's great triumphs; a suicide drama that is actually fun to watch.
The romance angle between Riley and Ogden is believable, even if it dips a toe into movie romance a bit. But the real story is what is going on inside Riley. She is a nuanced character, hiding behind a wall of sarcasm, her inner beauty peeking out just slightly when Ogden is able to tease it out from behind her incredibly striking eyes.
While the family story is squarely in the b-plot realm, it is enjoyable, mostly because of the good performances and particularly strong editing. There is a lot style on display here from first time director Andy Landen and both the score and cinematography are excellent throughout. Landen has assembled a very strong team and the result is a mature and poignant film. But there is no doubt that the take away from Sequoia is that Aly Michalka is one to watch.