It may begin with a character racing across a desert with a small plane in hot pursuit, but “Heatstroke” is not, to put it gently, the second coming of “North by Northwest.” An underwhelming survival thriller about a fragile family unit beset by violent thugs while on a research expedition in South Africa, this first feature from writer-director Evelyn Maude Purcell in nearly 30 years (since her 1986 comedy, “Nobody’s Fool”) remains watchable largely due to its vivid location photography, providing a suitably scenic, dust-choked backdrop for the otherwise thoroughly generic proceedings. Low-key theatrical and VOD exposure awaits.
Stephen Dorff completists may be disappointed to learn (spoiler alert) that his character, a hyena specialist named Paul O’Malley, doesn’t stick around for long — a shame, too, since the perpetually underrated actor offers something for the viewer to latch onto amid the script’s initial pileup of domestic-angst cliches. Happily in love with his beautiful Russian girlfriend, Tally (Svetlana Metkina), Paul has a harder time connecting with his sullen teenage daughter, Jo (Maisie Williams, “Game of Thrones”), whose recent troubles at school seem rooted in her unresolved anger at her parents’ divorce. At her wits’ end, Jo’s mother (Jeanne Neilson) asks Paul to take the kid on his next African excursion for some long-overdue daddy-daughter bonding time. But Tally is along for the trip as well, and despite her best efforts to be pleasant, she soon clashes with Jo, who doesn’t do much besides remain glued to her iPad and give off attitude.
After some ominous foreshadowing underlined by repeatedly menacing hyena closeups, Paul is startlingly eliminated from the picture, leaving Jo and Tally alone in the desert with no car, extremely limited water and rations, and a gang of central-casting criminal sadists (led by a bored-looking Peter Stormare) on their tail. Fortunately, Tally turns out to be much tougher and more nature-savvy than her modelesque features might inititally suggest. Unfortunately, Jo is still an infuriating brat (her grief doesn’t seem to have yielded a meaningful attitude adjustment) and kind of an imbecile to boot, her clumsy, impulsive actions more than once putting her and Tally in unnecessarily grave danger.
Purcell and Anne Brooksbank adapted their screenplay from “Leave No Trace,” the first of two novels by Hannah Nyala West centered around the adventures of search-and-rescue worker Tally Nowata. But as played by Metkina, a likable screen presence not entirely at ease acting in English, Tally isn’t a character who really leaps off the screen, let alone seems ready to commandeer her own franchise. It doesn’t help that the well-wrangled hyenas — who gradually evolve into a portent of resilience and hope over the pic’s 91-minute running time — show considerably more personality than the film’s villains, with their knives, firearms and ill-defined motives. Ben Nott’s fine, atmospheric widescreen imagery of the dry, rugged South African terrain is the distinguishing element of a pro tech package.