The first feature from co-helmers Ankush Kohli and Chad Waterhouse, “Exodus Fall” is a family drama about a family in flight from itself, as three teens flee cross-country from their horrible mother after their dad’s death. This 1970s period piece is nicely crafted and sweetly engaging overall, despite some stilted dialogue and crudely melodramatic elements. Opening April 8 in a handful of U.S. markets, it’s unlikely to make a major impression theatrically, but should achieve some traction in home formats thanks to pic’s cast names and wholesome appeal.

Well, not entirely wholesome: “Exodus” flouts the No. 1 rule of movies and parents — never, ever pick up scruffy hitchhikers — with no ill consequences, and features a mom who spits “You’re a son of a bitch” at her eldest, only to be answered, “I am a son of a bitch, that’s about right.” Somewhat awkwardly structured script begins with a framing device in which three siblings — protective Kenneth (Jesse James), bookish Charlotte (Adrien Finkel) and excessively adorable Dana (Devon Graye) — get flat-tire help from charismatic hippie hitchhiker Travis (Alexander Carroll). Around the campfire that night, Kenneth initiates a lengthy flashback by telling their new companion just what these siblings are running from.

That would be Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette), their mother, although “mutha” might be more apt. A shrew during her marriage to injury-sidelined baseball player-turned-farmer Wayne (Christopher Atkins), she only gets worse after his death from a heart attack. Afraid to be alone, she nonetheless abuses her children and is sketched as a drunken slut to boot (at one point, she wears a flame-red dress so we’ll better grasp what a sinner she is). Arquette is capable of fine acting, but this cartoonish role doesn’t ask for subtlety and she doesn’t provide any.

When Marilyn’s meanness extends to committing her “special” middle child to a sanitarium, protective Kenny and bookish sis Charlotte (Adrien Finkel) hatch a plan to rescue Dana (Devon Graye) — the kind of movie character whose clinical diagnosis might be excessive adorability. They commandeer an old car, purloin some of Mom’s cash, and off to their benevolent grandmother’s house they go.

At the halfway point, pic catches up to the present with the poetically inclined Travis now riding along, en route to a “special delivery” we eventually learn has to do with his recently ended military service in Vietnam. The quartet travel north from Texas to Oregon, seemingly hitting half the spectacular parklands between (not excluding the Grand Canyon). Much is made of underage Kenny’s driving inexperience and Charlotte’s first period, although frankly, the thesps seem too old for those conceits.

Waterhouse’s episodic script seldom comes up with imaginative or revealing incidents en route, and his dialogue sometimes suggests an aspiring undergraduate novelist run amuck. Still, it’s a pleasant trip in all, with slick packaging and some poignant moments compensating for various flaws. Thesping is solid enough, apart from shrill Arquette and Finkel, who gets an “introducing” credit here but lacks screen presence.

Exodus Fall

  • Production: An Oakhurst Pictures release of a Gorilla Pictures and Brainstorm Prods. presentation of a Kohli-Waterhouse production. Produced by Sudarshan Kohli, Ankush Kohli. Executive producers, Kumkum Kohli, Sameer Kohli. Directed by Ankush Kohli, Chad Waterhouse. Screenplay, Waterhouse.
  • Crew: Camera (color, Super 16), Denis Maloney; editor, Mitchel Stanley; music, Boris Zelkin, Deeji Mincey; production designer, Elizabeth Garner; art director, Erin Staub; set decorator, Alana Brown; costume designer, Kerrie Kordowski; sound, Amber Conroy; supervising sound editor, Greg Vossberg; re-recording mixer, Scott Bruzenak; assistant director, Amir Khan; casting, Gerald I. Wolff, Christine Joyce. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, April 2, 2011. (In WorldFest-Houston Film Festival -- opener.) MPAA Rating: Running time: 92 MIN.
  • With: With: Jesse James, Rosanna Arquette, Devon Graye, Dee Wallace, Christopher Atkins, Adrien Finkel, Alexander Carroll, Leo Rossi, Duane Whitaker.