“The Surface” boasts a thriller premise, albeit one that leads not to a suspense narrative, but rather to a spottily involving two-hander that’s borderline stagy despite being set in the middle of Lake Michigan. Opened on a dozen Midwestern screens May 15, this well-intentioned but unmemorable drama from helmer Gil Cates Jr. and producer/scenarist Jeff Gendelman is more likely to make modest inroads as a smallscreen item.
Mitch (Sean Astin) is an average Joe living in Milwaukee, though we quickly sense he’s dragging around above-average degrees of depression and loneliness. After visiting his senile mother in a nursing home, he drives the less-than-spruce family speedboat to the dock for a Lake Michigan outing on this hot summer’s day. His intent is not recreational, however. Just as he appears to be commencing a suicide plan, he’s interrupted by the vessel’s plowing into some aquatic debris. There’s been a small-plane crash — and there’s a barely conscious man clinging to a wing.
Mitch hauls the stranger out of the water. Yet once he comes around, seriously injured Kelly (Chris Mulkey) is far from grateful; in fact, he brandishes a knife, demands to know who his rescuer is, and seems inordinately concerned about a small daypack he’s managed to cling to. He claims he was flying from Michigan to an airshow in Wisconsin and misjudged his altitude amid morning fog.
But that story turns out to be something of a ruse: After a time we learn Kelly was really on a rather shadier mission, one he’d been forced into by his family’s economic straits. (Mimi Rogers appears briefly in flashbacks as his devoted wife.) Meanwhile, the belligerent pilot wrestles some truths from Mitch regarding why he was in the middle of Lake Michigan with little food, not enough gas, and some ominous cargo. More flashbacks eventually reveal the sources of the despair that led the younger man here.
Though the script by theater-trained thesp/scribe Gendelman quickly retreats from any “Dead Calm”-like stranger-danger-at-sea, there remains a suspense element in Kelly’s fear that his life is still at risk from employers his crash prevented him from rendezvousing with. But that’s lackadaisically handled by Cates’ direction, and the rambling dialogue is no help. With both characters sporting different kinds of expertise, their sometimes mildly comical, argumentative banter often digresses into such interesting (but narrative-momentum-killing) trivia as the legal treatment of suicide attempts in different states, and the head-injury risks of rollerblading. Nor does much tension develop from the fact that our duo is stranded far from shore in a disabled boat (even once it’s sprung a leak).
Instead, the primary emphasis is on the gradual warming between protagonists, who move from hostile wariness to grudging confidences and finally wind up caring about each other’s disparate plights. There is a sweet, slightly whimsical ending that feels somewhat out of character with the prior going, but hits a tenor the film might have benefited from threading in much earlier. As is, “The Surface” is earnest but not atmospheric or insightfully written enough to attain the heartfelt poignancy it aims for.
Performances are decent, with Astin solid in a schlumpy character role, although the normally reliable Mulkey sometimes pushes Kelly’s cantankerousness to the brink of ham. Packaging is pro but rather nondescript, with little personality to Jimmy Sammarco’s location lensing and a blandly pleasant, occasionally too-twee soundtrack of original instrumental music and various-artist songs.