It’s a suggestion every filmmaker dreads reading while perusing notes from a producer: “Can’t you make your protagonist more likable?” But in the case of “Sequoia,” such a recommendation might have been well heeded. As Riley, an angry young woman bent on beating the reaper before she’s felled by cancer, Aly Michalka is much too convincing in her fingernails-on-chalkboard abrasiveness, making it difficult to develop a rooting interest in her character’s fate until the three-quarters mark of helmer Andy Landen’s road-movie dramedy. Long before that point, unfortunately, many if not most viewers will have switched off this VOD-bound indie.
To be fair, Michalka appears to be playing the role as it’s written by scripter Andrew Rothschild, who doesn’t stint on doling out annoying qualities to the supporting characters as well. But Landen and Michalka might have made the long journey more involving had they given the audience earlier and fuller insights into Riley’s fear and pain, while emphasizing her seemingly endless capacity for savage snark.
Facing few acceptable options and long odds against survival after a late-stage cancer diagnosis, Riley hatches a typically self-aggrandizing plan to kill herself by pharmaceutical overdose atop a mountain in the Sequoia National Forest. As she sees it, the suicide will be less an escape from agony and/or disfigurement than one last guilt-tripping attack on her self-absorbed mother, Bev (Joey Lauren Adams), a self-published author who followed her muse after turning Riley and her sister Savanna (Sophi Bairley) over to their alcoholic father, Oscar (Todd Lowe).
While en route to the spot where she intends to shuffle off her mortal coil, Riley meets cute with Ogden (Dustin Milligan), a devout yet flexible Christian volunteer on his way to a Third World ministry. Maybe he sees Riley as a soul to be saved, or maybe he’s looking to raise some hell before doing God’s work. Whatever his motive, Ogden evinces the patience of Solomon as he remains in Riley’s orbit, if only to make sure her last minutes are relatively peaceful. Meanwhile, members of Riley’s dysfunctional family — along with Bev’s latest boyfriend, Steve (Demetri Martin), a control-freakish psychologist — follow in what can only be described in lukewarm pursuit.
Amid the spectacular scenery captured by Steven Ringer’s ace lensing, the Riley-Ogden relationship plays out at a lackadaisical pace, with frequent cutaways to the other characters squabbling within the close quarters of Bev’s car. Time passes, but not quickly enough.
There are two indisputably effective moments in “Sequoia,” one depicting a genuinely creepy interaction between Savanna and Steve (who threatens to be a stern disciplinarian after he marries her mom), and the other an atypically serene conversation between Riley and a fellow cancer patient (a beautifully played cameo by Lou Diamond Phillips) near a tree rumored to have healing powers. For the most part, however, “Sequoia” is such a charm-free grind that some viewers may actually start hoping at the midway point for Riley to drink the toxic cocktail and just get it over with.