Film Review: Lost in the Sun

A man and an orphaned 14-year-old drive through mid-America and the Southwest, staying just ahead of the law and learning life lessons.
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With a generic title and a generic tagline ("How far can one man go?"), the independent road movie Lost in the Sun is anything but generic in tone, since it has many. Is it a boy's-adventure coming-of-age fable? A crime story about a man running from a murderous criminal and himself? A psychological drama about teen defiance when you're homeless and on the road? At various points, it's all three.

A first feature from a director of, mostly, TV instructional and documentary shows, Trey Nelson's effort does boast an evocative visual feel for a heartland America that's both picturesque and ugly, its exteriors visibly peeling from the sun of the title. Admirably, there is nothing romantic about its byway motels with tar-patched parking lots, its rickety, mom-and-pop convenience stores or its piece-of-crap cars from the ’70s and ’80s. And Daniel Hart's music is particularly good, though we could do without the heartwarming piano at truly odd spots. The story, however, makes its big reveal obvious from the start—and it doesn't seem Nelson's intention that the audience is supposed to be in on this unspoken secret, judging from the part-the-curtain, roll-the-drum staging and delivery of star Josh Duhamel's pronouncement near the end.

Duhamel plays John, "the kind of guy who's failed at just about everything he's ever done," as one character puts it. Not long out of prison for some petty crime, he owes a fixer twenty grand for his protection behind bars, and gets a beating for showing up with only a six-grand down payment.

That six thousand came from 14-year-old Louis (Josh Wiggins), and presumably was all the money his newly dead single mother had. He must leave immediately after the viewing—since apparently no social-service agency or church congregation will shelter him till the funeral, the first of several shake-your-head plot plots—and take a bus for a couple of days to reach his grandparents in New Mexico. (The movie does at least explain that his grandpa is very ill, so his grandparents can't drive up to get him.) Before Louis can board, however, John introduces himself as a friend of his grandparents who's going to drive him instead. Louis is wary—especially after John gives his money to the fixer—but after a false start and throwing stranger-danger warnings to the wind, he agrees to ride with him.

The virtually penniless John is living out of his car, and it soon turns out the car isn't even his. As the loser and the orphan wend their way through America, financing their food through John's not-always-successful robberies, the older man teaches an alternately defiant and exhilarated Louis how to drive and how to shoot a pistol, while dispensing such, ahem, fatherly advice as "A scorned woman will tear your heart out, put it between two buns and eat it…”

Along the way they meet a pastor, a suspicious cop and others including Mary (Lynn Collins), who drags along her 13-year-old whatevs daughter, Rose (Emma Fuhrmann), on the trail of one "meal-ticket" guy or other, as the world-weary girl puts it.

Duhamel and Wiggins unfortunately don't have the kind of Paper Moon chemistry that could have helped gloss over some of the harder-to-swallow plot turns. And there's little suspense, with even the fixer's threats having no real follow-up, as that subplot simply disappears. And is it a law, by the way, that 90 percent of all independent films seem to start with voiceover narration? Opening with the second scene here would have drawn you in—or even the first scene's achingly beautiful panoramas without the voiceover. I hate to harp on the canard of “Show us, don't tell us,” but ironically, showing and not telling is something Nelson does very well throughout the remainder of the film. It'd be nice to see this visually savvy director up at bat again, though hopefully with a writer other than himself.

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