A curious first English-language feature choice for director Jorge Michel Grau (of the original 2010 Mexican horror film “We Are What We Are”) “Big Sky” is a misfired thriller starring Bella Thorne as a sanatorium-bound basket case forced to cope after a crisis strands her in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Evan M. Wiener’s screenplay throws in too many disparate elements without developing any of them very effectively, while Grau’s direction is slick but unable to provide the tension or consistency needed. Opened Aug. 14 on single New York and Los Angeles screens, the pic will find its modest audience primarily in simultaneous VOD release, along with other home formats.
After a brief teaser of the straits our heroine will find herself in, we’re properly introduced to Hazel (Thorne), an Albuquerque teen in full withdrawal from the world — she hasn’t left her bedroom in six months, not since attempting to go for a walk triggered an “attack.” She has a testy relationship with divorced mother/caretaker Dee (Kyra Sedgwick), who has her own issues of a more pedestrian nature (booze, men), but is primarily concerned with the daughter whose agoraphobia is apparently just one symptom of larger mental-health issues, including schizophrenia.
As Hazel has just turned 18, her absent, remarried father is no longer legally bound to provide child support. With that card in play, he’s demanded that she check into a facility on an Indian reservation to see if her various afflictions can be treated. This is a big leap, of course, one that Hazel is (barely) willing to make only if the center’s van provides her with special accommodations for the journey: She’s basically secreted in a small, unlit rear compartment, out of the other passengers’ sight. Those other patients being picked up include a kleptomaniac heiress (Jodi Lynn Thomas), a young golf pro with an eating disorder (Ricky Tollman), and a surly World Bank employee (Terry Dale Parks). At the last minute Sedgwick’s mom decides to ride along, in order to reassure Hazel and flirt with the friendly driver (Michael Sheets).
They haven’t gotten far, however, when, amid a particularly desolate stretch the van is stopped by two armed, masked men. Moments later, one passenger has been kidnapped, the others shot dead. Eventually emerging from her crawlspace, Hazel discovers the only other survivor is a badly wounded Dee. Determining that a Native American village a few miles away is their best hope, Hazel has to overcome her numerous crippling neuroses to reach help.
In theory this setup should provide sustaining tension, but in execution that doesn’t quite pan out. Given an incongruously glam look as she tries to will herself into action, Thorne’s protagonist generates more boredom and annoyance than empathy with her fear of dirt, open spaces, and whatnot. Mostly she just ambles about verrry slowly, eventually interacting with an unhelpful imaginary friend (Chiara Aurelia), an unfortunately unimaginary tweaker (Francois Arnaud), and a couple of older local residents (Beth Bailey, Clif Stokes), leaving origami animals behind in her wake. Meanwhile, wounded mom must contend with wild animals and the return of the perps, who’ve realized they left a witness (Hazel) behind. But even they mostly deal with their own dysfunctional-relationship issues, with Frank Grillo as the responsible one trying to keep a lid on crazy half-brother Aaron Tveit, who wasn’t supposed to kill anyone in the first place.
These are too many complications drop-kicked into the narrative with too little depth, tonally veering from straight suspense to comedy, absurdism and mawkishness. A late twist that triggers a shootout comes as no surprise at all. Neither Hazel’s fragile mental condition or the hostile desert environ become as vividly defined as they should be. Where something like “127 Hours” successfully captured the mental and physical aspects of wilderness peril by maintaining a fairly tight focus, “Big Sky” throws in so many competing ideas that none of them stick, not even Hazel’s central predicament.
The script’s waywardness means that the capable performers are seen to best advantage the briefer their appearances are — the more screentime they get, the more carelessly drawn their roles seem. Tech and design aspects are all well handled, but nothing here lends “Big Sky” the stark intensity that its concept seems to cry out for.