“Rain Man” casts a long shadow that “The Odd Way Home” doesn’t do enough to wriggle out from under, even if its leading characters’ very similar dynamic takes place somewhat further down the economic ladder. Starring Rumer Willis as the reluctant minder of an autistic savant (Chris Marquette) on a picaresque road trip, Rajeev Nirmalakhandan’s feature benefits from generally solid performances, handsome lensing and a fairly restrained approach. Still, its essential contrivance works against the earnest emotions it’s aiming for, resulting in a less-than-special specialty item likely to do better in ancillary than in bigscreen release. It opens for a week May 30 at the Arena in Hollywood.
Beaten senseless by an unstable boyfriend, Maya (Willis) waits until he’s passed out, then flees their squalid L.A. apartment. She drives her truck to New Mexico — it’s unclear why there, as opposed to anyplace else — where it conks out in the middle of nowhere. She walks to the nearest isolated home, where 20-ish Duncan (Marquette) lives with his grandmother and works at nearby a convenience store. Getting no answer at the door, Maya realizes what Duncan hasn’t yet, that Grandma has (very recently) expired. Figuring she might as well help herself, she empties the woman’s purse, taking her money and car keys. But upon hitting the road again, now behind the wheel of an old delivery truck, she discovers Duncan asleep in the rear compartment he’s turned into a bedroom.
While his precise diagnosed condition is never named (except in the pic’s press materials), Duncan is a mixture of obliviousness and compulsion, a very literal-minded creature of strict habits who draws meticulous maps with ease, yet can’t express or control his emotions — let alone interpret other people’s — in conventional fashion. Initially blase about his changed situation, he freaks out sufficiently upon grasping it that Maya drives him back home. She then convinces him to leave again, though it’s unclear whether she primarily wants to deliver him safely to another relative, or to cash the $3,000 check she’s found made out to him.
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The script by Jason Ronstadt and Nirmalakhandan moves at a decent clip from one episodic adventure to the next: another car breakdown, a comic carjacking, an attempted rape outside a sleazy bar, Duncan beaten by rubes. Eventually they land in a Wild West ghost-town attraction where Maya reunites with a sympathetic older ex (Brendan Sexton III) and goes through withdrawal from whatever addictions she’d acquired in L.A. The film’s last third finds them paying a series of surprise visits that don’t do much to deepen the narrative beyond reinforcing the leads’ status as victims and cementing the bond between them.
As they get their (presumably) happy-ever-after fade, it’s clear that “The Odd Way Home” is one of those movies that figures its job is complete after the challenged protagonists jump a few hurdles — never mind that they’re still hardly equipped to survive on their own in the world. Still, the pic’s small scale, tight focus and generally low-key tenor lend it an attractive modesty that succeeds in tamping down the more melodramatic moments.
Marquette is good, even if, in the usual manner of such films, his mental condition is rendered less than consistently — limitations highlighted for conflict or comic value suddenly vanish when it’s convenient to have him perform a heroic act, demonstrate a previously unknown skill, or utter a precocious wisdom. Willis’ competent performance might have done well to avoid a look and affect that remind us all too clearly of a Kristen Stewart-type role, the sullen, vaguely goth girl whose tough exterior masks a bruised vulnerability. Sexton brings relaxed warmth to an underwritten part.
A big plus in the proficient package is Matt Wilson’s widescreen lensing of the various desert and mountain landscapes the characters travel through.