A small-time crook has a secret in “Lost in the Sun,” but it takes nearly 90 minutes of secondhand outlaw behavior to get it out of him in writer-director Trey Nelson’s somnolent road picture. By then, the audience is likely 80 minutes ahead of the big reveal and perhaps wondering why some obvious questions aren’t being asked. Sprawling the drama out across the arid expanse between Texas and New Mexico — and catching seemingly every “magic hour” exterior along the way — Nelson seeks a more tender variation on the traditional Middle American crime spree, but the central relationship between a ne’er-do-well and an orphaned teen rarely rings true. A perfunctory release in theaters and on VOD on Nov. 5 will be the farthest this broken-down Josh Duhamel vehicle stands to travel before stalling out.
“There are certain things I just can’t change about myself,” confesses ex-con John Wheeler (Duhamel), and he’s certainty right about that. Past mistakes have condemned him to a life in permanent exile, where he sleeps in his car and dodges the shady characters who want the protection money he owes them. It’s safe to assume he’s alienated everyone who ever cared about him and it’s equally safe to assume that his time in prison hasn’t exactly burnished his resume. Backed into this desperate corner, the only way he knows how to survive is to wave his handgun at the clerk beyond the counter and hope there’s enough in the cash register to last him a few days.
When John turns up at his ex-girlfriend’s funeral, he turns his attention to her orphaned son, Louis (Josh Wiggins), who’s set to take a bus to his grandparents’ house in New Mexico immediately after the ceremony is over. It doesn’t take much for John to convince the boy to skip the bus and accept a ride with him instead, but needless to say, they take the scenic route getting there. Though he remains properly suspicious and resentful of this stranger, Louis perks up when John teaches him lessons in adulthood like how to drive and how to shoot a gun. Those skills come in handy later, when John needs a wheelman for a series of armed robberies.
The bond that develops between the boy and the stranger hovers somewhere between twisted affection and Stockholm syndrome, but Nelson doesn’t make it stick. Their feelings for each other vary from scene to scene, with Louis acting like a hostage in some and a willing partner-in-crime in others. John proudly likens himself to great American outlaws like Billy the Kid and Clyde Barrow — Louis gently reminds him that those guys got shot — but the comparison does “Lost in the Sun” no favors. Dragging a sullen boy through a handful of low-yield stick-ups does not a criminal legend make.
The film breaks the monotony a little when the fugitives pair off John and Louis with a like-aged mother (Lynn Collins) and daughter (Emma Fuhrmann) who show both the possibility of a healthier life. But soon enough, Nelson puts them back on a road to a New Mexico farm that seems so far away, perhaps they followed Bugs Bunny’s lead and took a wrong turn at Albuquerque. “Lost in the Sun” doesn’t have the pop of a crime thriller, much less an exploitation movie, but the absence of psychological complexity makes it listless as drama, too, with a disengaged Duhamel moseying about like Timothy Olyphant’s understudy.
The one bright spot in this grinding dirge is Wiggins, a gifted child actor who continues a run of good performances this year in the indie drama “Hellion” and the inspiration dog movie “Max.” Even with his company, though, it’s still a long road to get the expected solution to the pic’s only mystery.