First-timer Ray Lein shrugs off the shackles of a $ 30,000 budget and dishes up an offhand, unassumingly edgy take on the modern American outlaw movie in “Bad Apples.” Technical rawness and an erratic narrative motor are largely overshadowed by a mood that ambles flavorsomely between soulful desperado turf and almost comic flippancy, and pic should land exposure in fests surveying new directing talent.
Unintelligibly recorded dialogue in the opening scene gives a somewhat uncertain start, but speed picks up when easygoing drifter Ronnie (Alex Wolfe) falls in with hotheaded Rocky (Jeffrey Vance), who’s just murdered his boss at an apple orchard. Momentum is stepped up another notch when they hook up with gun-toting Josy (Madeleine Gavin), also fresh from a kill.
Instantly miffed at his back-seat position to Rocky and Josy’s romance, Ronnie becomes increasingly distanced, idly strumming his ukelele while conflict festers effectively on a low flame. Their escalating crime spree propels them through an atmospheric string of faded central California towns, tailed by cops revealed to be primarily after Josy for having shot one of their men.
Rocky slips out of the picture when Josy’s allegiance shifts to Ronnie, and she helps him carve out an honest living with his ukelele act. But Rocky resurfaces with a self-serving plan that steers the trio to a well orchestrated, fatal final punch.
Lein’s unfettered direction and script let the characters coast toward their fate while consistently underplaying the dramatic urgency of the events. The tack is mostly successful, giving the impression of being right at home in the lawlessness realm, though it does periodically threaten to stall the action.
The three leads are uniformly strong, playing concisely defined characters and slotting easily into pic’s unforced approach. Amy Hobby’s black-and-white lensing opts for functional simplicity. Amusing musical quirks are peppered throughout, from frantic Mexican pop and Ronnie’s tinny ukelele tunes to a leaden funeral dirge.