In 1926, Polish-born immigrant Lillian Alling decided either that she was done with New York City or it was done with her, and set out to take the long way home. Traveling on foot, she crossed into Canada at Niagara Falls, headed for Alaska, and continued her epic solo trek along the Bering Strait toward Russia. She was never heard from again. Alling’s story is a grimly remarkable one that has inspired multiple novels, historical studies and even an opera; by now, it ought to have made for a remarkable film. “Lillian,” the first narrative feature by celebrated Austrian docmaker Andreas Horvath, isn’t quite it, but neither does it tell quite that story. Reimagining Alling’s journey as a present-day trans-American odyssey, it retains the sad, aloof mystique of its true-life inspiration, but despite the topical resonance of an immigrant escape narrative set in Trump’s hostile America, Horvath’s hard-going road movie feels less than authentic in its environmental and political detailing.
With Horvath also taking writing, lensing and music credits — while sharing editing duties with Michael Palm — on this bare-bones production, “Lillian” is evidently a labor of love for the filmmaker whose last documentary, the startling, discomfitingly close-quarters study “Helmut Berger, Actor,” significantly raised his festival-circuit profile. “Labor” is the operative word in that term: In sympathy with its subject, “Lillian” feels itself like an arduous, intuitive undertaking, made without script or compass. (Press notes allude to a significant degree of on-the-road improvisation.)
These efforts yield something less bracing or striking than Horvath’s non-fiction work, or what you might expect given the imprimatur of producer Ulrich Seidl. Playing in long stretches like a solemn, desaturated version of Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” the film’s slideshow of the soured American Dream, with its parade of broken-down nowhere towns, disenfranchised citizens and social intolerance, is pretty familiar.
What eerie charge “Lillian” does possess comes largely courtesy of its lead, Polish visual artist Patrycja Planik, who utters not one word in the film’s two-hour-plus running time, but does hold the camera with a fixed, blank-slate gaze — making her updated Lillian Alling a kind of stoic proxy for anyone who has felt isolated and voiceless in the great American vastness. All we learn of her character comes in the film’s opening minutes: This Lillian is introduced as a Russian would-be pornographic actress in the Big Apple, her U.S. visa expired, trying to get work from a leering adult-movie producer. Advised to return home, with no money for an airfare, she sets out on foot as her historical namesake did.
The ensuing journey takes her through northeastern woodlands, sun-beaten midwestern plains and indeterminate semi-urban sprawl, until an extreme turn northwards coincides with a change in season: Already grueling, the going gets chillier and more forbidding from there. Along the way, our silent heroine trudges through an all-American diorama of cornfields, rodeos and demolition derbies; she steals clothes from Goodwill stores, food from farmers’ fairs, and takes shelter in derelict houses, storm drains and portable toilets. Notwithstanding some stray acts of charity (and one rattling threat of sexual abuse) from strangers, she mostly passes through the country without comment or concern from those around her: one of many in an invisible underclass.
But if her day-to-day survival is depicted with some measure of honest grit, the film’s more overt social commentary often feels strained and artificial, beginning with the recurring, hyper-perky radio broadcasts that serve as a kind of satirical refrain to Lillian’s struggle, with their banal daily musings on weather and football, plus conservative homilies about how “growing up isn’t what it used to be.” This is the kind of outsider’s view of the country where a white man scowling at a Native American protester helpfully wears a cap emblazoned with the words “Vietnam Veteran,” while on-the-nose billboards drive home assorted state-of-the-nation messages: “Smile, your mom chose life,” “Girls don’t hitchhike on the highway of tears,” “Where is your family?” Horvath doesn’t favor the subtlest imagery, going so far as to give Lillian a severed doll’s head to carry in her backpack as a portable end-of-innocence emblem.
“Lillian” would hit harder without this constant visual editorialization, trusting instead in the elemental relationship between the woman and the land — which Horvath shoots in a widescreen format that alternately evokes panoramic grandeur and squat, gray infinity. (The washed-out palette works against expectations in the early going, before deepening into warmer russets and greens as she moves past the U.S. mainland, and Russia, however distant, begins to feel at least atmospherically within reach.) Horvath’s score, too, is temperamental, ranging from fevered strings to industrial droning, seemingly speaking for Lillian’s own unarticulated shifts in mood.