Last weekend, FirstGlance Film Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary of presenting independent films in Philadelphia with a weekend-long program of mostly short films. I had a chance to check out the closing-night film, Nowhere, Michigan, at the Painted Bride Arts Center.
Unfortunately, through no fault of the festival, the Bride’s projection was exceptionally dim and occasionally looked out of focus. My guess is that the projector needs a new bulb: an easy fix, and a real shame for the audience, who couldn't fully appreciate the rich colors and expansive scenery promised in this film’s trailer. In addition, the festival’s programmers chose to include three short films with a combined runtime of 53 minutes before the feature film began. There was no unifying theme among the shorts, and no connection between them and the main event.
"An independent crime thriller comedy"
An independently produced narrative feature (billed as "an independent crime thriller comedy"), directed by G. Robert Vornkahl, Nowhere, Michigan was impressive, made using what was likely a very small budget. After watching a trailer that screens somewhat like a cross between Fargo and Reservoir Dogs, I was excited to see this unconventional film given such prominent billing in FirstGlance’s program.
David (Tequan Richmond), a college student turned meth chemist to support his seriously ill mother, goes on the lam after a botched drug deal leads to a death. Fleeing toward Canada, David stops in a rural town in Northern Michigan, resumes business there, and gets caught in a love triangle between Madison (a pregnant bartender played by Jenna Boyd of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Atypical) and a diner waitress named April (Christina Scherer). However, David cannot outrun his past.
Richmond (a series regular on both General Hospital and Everybody Hates Chris) is the only person of color onscreen, and his character seems underdeveloped. The film never directly addresses race, but there are potential issues with the depiction of David.
With minimal dialogue in its first 10 minutes, the film undertakes a tonal shift when David reaches town and begins interacting with the locals. Whatever assumptions the audience had about this African-American male drug dealer dissipate when we learn his altruistic motivation. That said, David’s infidelity potentially reinforces negative stereotypes about African-American men, and the love triangle also has the effect of hypersexualizing him. The same narrative could have been achieved by giving him a single lover.
I won’t spoil the ending, but despite the film’s gratifying (if predictable) action climax, its epilogue offers a tonally awkward and out-of-place resolution involving David’s relationship with Madison.
One thing Vornkahl captures quite well is the utter hopelessness of small-town America, where each character reeks of desperation and everyone is trying to escape something. Shot amid vast swathes of nothingness, the townspeople’s American dreams appear to have been lost to the decline of the manufacturing industry.
David, April, and Madison are all trying to escape something: the past, boredom, loss. Even the film’s minor characters, such as Madison’s uncle Martin (Richard Riehle), who reminisces about his glory days in the free-loving 1960s, seem to want to be anywhere but there. The result is a humanizing look at the rise in rural drug abuse, timely considering the nation’s current opioid epidemic.
Nowhere, Michigan offers really worthwhile moments if you can stick it out. Despite its flaws, the filmmakers are trying to communicate an important message, which is more than I can say for most mainstream Hollywood films these days.