In “The Inland Road,” the ruggedly beautiful landscapes of New Zealand’s isolated Otago region on the South Island provide a scenic backdrop to — and the most unique aspect of — a slender coming-of-age tale from debuting feature writer-director Jackie van Beek. The loose, performance-focused drama follows troubled Maori teen Tia (camera-friendly non-profressional actress Gloria Popata), who survives a fatal road accident while hitchhiking and is subsequently sheltered by the car’s driver, despite the objections of his wife. As the physically and emotionally-wounded Tia slowly comes to terms with her turbulent past, her sometimes confrontational presence provokes a crisis in the marriage of her hosts. Further fest action seems likely for this small-scale but strikingly-shot film.
Much like laconic 16-year-old Tia (whose curvaceous body, smoking habit and way with a rifle make her seem more mature than her age), van Beek’s spare narrative only parsimoniously doles out information, something which works against audience identification with and empathy toward her. Apart from an early scene in the hospital following the accident which reveals that Tia’s parents are divorced and her father (Stephen Lovatt) has no room for her in his new life, we don’t get much insight into what makes her tick or why she has left home. Apparently, the curlicue tattoo on her neck upsets her never-seen mother, but we don’t learn why until a low-key reveal near the end of the film.
Instead of returning home with the money that her father awkwardly thrusts at her, the bruised and bandaged Tia turns up at the funeral for Matt, who died in the car accident. There, she sees Will (David Elliot), the driver of the vehicle, whose life she saved by bringing help. Now on crutches, the grateful Scotsman offers her a place to stay at the farm — now run with Matt’s widow, May (Jodie Hillock), who is sister to his pregnant wife, Donna (Chelsie Preston Crayford, the story’s most sympathetic and pragmatic character).
Hard-drinking May is finding it difficult to cope and can’t hide her bitterness and resentment toward her sister and his husband. Not only did her brother-in-law lose control of the car, directly causing Matt’s death, but the couple abandoned the farm to live abroad for many years. Now the distraught May can barely care for Lily (Georgia Spillane), her angelic-looking six-year-old.
When Lily temporarily moves in with Donna and Will, Tia devotes herself to the youngster and makes herself generally useful around the farm. Yet Tia’s assistance barely makes believable Donna’s willingness to overlook her surliness and habit of peeping at Donna and Will’s private life.
Van Beek, better known for her performance in fellow Kiwi directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s “What We Do in the Shadows” graduates to features after making seven award-winning shorts. She takes the unpredictable nature of human kindness in the wake of a tragedy as the underlying theme of her screenplay, but given the film’s privileging of mood over matter, incomplete character development, and sometimes implausible situations, not every viewer will buy in.
While the camera loves Popata (according to the press kit, was selected from more than 2,000 teens who auditioned for the role of Tia), she’s better at suggesting a heedless, directionless youth than one who ultimately learns and changes. Meanwhile, gorgeous, pint-sized Spillane, also a non-pro, is a real find who makes entirely believable her confusion over the loss of her father.
The lyrical, handheld lensing by DP Giovanni C. Lorusso favors intimate closeups of the characters secretly regarding one another or basking in the sun-dappled, autumnal nature. At the same time, blunt jump cuts by editors Luca Cappelli and Tom Eagles disguise the project’s low-budget nature but fail to smooth over narrative gaps.