Mind games and silly character choices go hand in hand in Eli Despres’ and Kim Roberts’ “Wilderness Survival for Girls,” a psychological thriller that establishes interesting situations only to lose its sense of direction. Layering half-articulated sexual tension atop a confrontation among a trio of high school girls vacationing at a mountain cabin and a wandering intruder is a fine idea, but it’s neutralized by risible action and plotting. Further fest treks are assured, though pic’s likeliest shelter will be cablers geared to women and indie cinema fans.
Pack three strong-willed teen girls in an SUV, place them at a somewhat isolated but nicely appointed cabin in the snow-tinged Rockies for a weekend getaway, and one might have the ideal ingredients for an exploiter horror pic. Sharing tasks as directors, writers and editors, Despres and Roberts immediately establish a more serious tone with fairly complex relationships while only hinting at the dangers to come.
The oh-so-polite Ruth (Jeanette Brox, who solely scored Los Angeles fest’s newly-minted performance award despite being part of a tight ensemble) brings her two ruder school pals Deb (Megan Henning) and Kate (Ali Humiston) up to her parents’ plush Colorado cabin. Deb chides Ruth for putting up with Kate, who dismisses Ruth as “smart about books but dumb about love.” Meanwhile, Kate seems to be overdoing her tough-chick act as if to set herself apart from her better educated pals.
Ruth appears almost impossibly naive for a graduating high schooler, even letting out the doozy that she’s never masturbated. Now, girlfriends will always chatter about sex, but here, the talk comes off as forced to fit the drama’s real agenda, which becomes apparent when the sun sets and night creeps in.
A pleasant dinner and a leisurely session of pot-smoking (and no, Ruth hasn’t tried marijuana before, either) seems to melt away the interpersonal tensions, until a drifter named Ed (James Morrison) suddenly appears on the porch. The girls’ previous talk about an old unsolved murder of a babysitter nearby raises the question of why Ruth’s parents would allow the girls to stay at the cabin alone, and Ed’s appearance confirms their worst fears.
Pic settles into a surprisingly amusing mid-section that has the befuddled Ed finding himself tied up and held at gunpoint. Morrison, a superb, nuanced and inexplicably underused actor on the bigscreen, is able to shift between vulnerability and being a real threat in the physically contained yet wide-ranging role.
Morrison’s game raises the bar for the young thesps, especially Brox, who impresses with a display of inner drama beyond her character’s astounding misjudgments. By simply wearing glasses and keeping a poker face, Henning cleverly hides Deb’s secret desires until they emerge with maximum hormonal effect. Humiston, though, is miscast, her seen-it-all airs closer to mid-20s toughness than teenage aggression.
After a round of dumb-and-dumber character options that threaten to completely do in the movie, final minutes rest on a bit of irony and some unexpressed moral angst that Despres and Roberts adeptly refuse to overplay. If only they had also insisted on shooting on film instead of digital video, which is fair in daylight but dim and ineffective at night — when things start to go bump.