If not for a cell phone that’s promptly taken away from our juvenile protagonist, you might think “Buck Run” takes place in the late ’70s or early ’80s. Evidently, it was that era which saw the last spasm of prosperity in the film’s rural Pennsylvania setting, as any home improvements seem to date back at least a couple decades. A thick haze of economic hopelessness and all the related woes it brings hangs over this gritty indie drama from director Nick Frangione (“Roxie”).
While the film is compelling in atmospheric and textural terms, it’s less successful as storytelling, as David Hauslein’s script proves excessively reluctant in parceling out much explanatory detail in this tale of a newly motherless boy’s strained reunion with his ne’er-do-well deer-hunter father. The result is a mixed bag that’s less than satisfying, albeit still distinctive enough to warrant a look by adventuresome festivals and niche distributors.
When the film introduces 15-year-old Shaw Templeton (Nolan Lyons), he’s in a state of shock and denial: Despite mom’s apparent long illness (presumably cancer), the young man can’t process finding his mother (Amy Hargreaves) dead, so nearly two days pass before the authorities become aware of the situation.
This means Shaw is turned over to the care of his estranged dad, William (James Le Gros), who is understandably not thrilled, as he can barely take care of himself. Will tells the small-town police that he’s been sober for more than two years, but we quickly discern that’s a flat-out lie. His cabin in the woods is a cluttered mess. When he’s not sleeping off the prior night’s antics, he mostly hangs out with best (and only) bud John (Kevin J. O’Connor), who likewise ekes out a theadbare living hunting game. Whatever other bridges Will once had to the outside world, he’s long since burnt.
Though there are glimmers of good intent in his generally surly demeanor, Shaw’s dad has advanced far down the same road of antisocial alcoholism and isolation that already cost him his marriage. He doesn’t know any better than to treat his son as a barely-tolerated intruder and source of free labor. Shaw keeps running away, but he has nowhere to run to — he’s bullied at school and elsewhere, in particular by one noxious overweight kid. In these first traumatic days after his mother’s demise, he finds some stability in focusing on making sure she gets a proper funeral and burial. But even that may be too much to ask for.
“Buck Run” has a lot of motifs that aren’t given enough emphasis to become a binding source of narrative tension, notably Shaw’s lack of sleep and food. There are subplots that also don’t lead anywhere, including Will’s tiff with John over an old loan that might have been borrowed under false pretenses. Even buck hunting itself, which occupies much of the adult characters’ time (and Shaw’s, in home-video flashbacks to happier childhood days), never gets woven into the story in any pointed fashion. Hauslein’s script is impressionistic in ways that are effective enough on a moment-to-moment basis. Still, it would benefit from more of a structural spine, and the characters need more definition (including fleshed-out backstory) to avoid feeling like an evocative, elliptical short story simply stretched to fit a longer frame.
This places limits on the performers, who are well-cast but expected to fill the blanks left by the too-sketchy writing. Even just a scene or two of real, cathartic emotional specificity might’ve been enough to memorably punch across the plight of Will, though Le Gros does his considerable best with the role anyway. Lyons is overburdened carrying the film on his thin shoulders. We can’t help but sympathize with Shaw, yet the film too often seems to think it’s enough to dwell on his pained expressions as he swallows one more humiliation or setback. Though we grasp his luckless circumstances, he himself remains something of a blank.
Nonetheless, “Buck Run” does hold attention as a sometimes arresting mood piece, one that flows well in David Barker’s editing despite the lack of much psychological suspense, and is vividly shot by DP Anna Franquesa Solano. Perry Mateson’s production design and Laura Barreto’s costumes faultlessly etch the details of a community in stasis — though not everyone is unhappy with that changelessness. (The film offers glimpses of local Amish and Mennonite residents.) The drifting electric guitar of Chris Brokaw’s score further amplifies a timelessly melancholy air that is not without saving lyricism. “Buck Run” has its strengths as an audiovisual tone poem, even if it could have used more attention to the elements required to work as a full-length narrative.