As lazy as a summer day in the Great Smoky Mountains, Ben Wagner’s “Southbounders” explores characters on a long-distance hike on the Appalachia Trail by a filmmaker who knows hiking himself. The near-docu quality of pic’s storytelling and loose approach to minimal drama casts a nice spell and gives non-hikers a taste of what it’s like to trudge in the woods. Pleasant but almost instantly forgettable, sojourn will sparkle at fests on many continents (especially Euro venues) but will leave most distribs indifferent.
Start of pic’s journey reels off a few factoids about the Maine-to-Georgia Appalachia Trail, including how the 2,100-plus-mile trek takes six months to cover if you’re a “thru-hiker” (covering it in a single marathon), and that only one in five planned thru-hikes are actually completed. An added fact that quickly emerges as med student Olivia (Amy Cale Peterson) begins her thru-hike in Maine as a “southbounder” is that few long-distance hikers are women.
Sore feet and the occasional leech are minor irritants for Olivia compared with the drawbacks brought on by Slackpack (Chris McCutchen), a seemingly lonely and visibly out-of-shape dude who gloms onto Olivia without asking if she’d really like a hiking buddy. An early fascination of “Southbounders” is how it precisely captures a reality hikers know too well: As far as one might get from the city into nature, people are never far behind.
Just when it seems the movie will be about nothing but a shy gal, along comes Rollin (Scott Speiser), a seemingly indomitable thru-hiker with dark, handsome looks and a laid-back manner of whom Slackpack speaks in reverential tones.
With his first feature, Wagner is perhaps a better filmmaker of existentialism — the passage through the forest, or from dry summer into chillier fall — than he is of drama. Once Olivia and Rollin are alone (after Slackpack departs from the trek in a jolly, unexpected twist), his script isn’t quite sure how to handle the emotion and tension that pass between these two young people, who discover that they’re actually made of very different stuff.
Momentary lovers who pass and then part ways, Olivia and Rollin have one final connection that may be the pic’s sweetest gesture, combining writing from the heart with little rituals along the Appalachia Trail.
Perfs are generally loose and unforced, though Speiser misses a chance to make Rollin a more memorable character.
Production is often as raw as the elements, with poor sound mix losing chunks of conversation. The sturdy work of twin crews (one for northern locales in summer, another for southern climes in autumn, including two different d.p.’s) are nicely meshed by editor David A. Herr, though vid process robs the pic of what would have been a naturally spectacular beauty on film. Jay Nash’s syncopated guitar score provides pleasant companionship.