Ever since Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road‘ in 2009, stories about a parent and child forming a symbiotic bond in their fight for survival in a hostile environment has garnered a lot of traction in films and video games. The essential aspect of this type of bond is that the parent teaches the child how to deal with their harsh reality while the child teaches the parent to be more human. While a relationship of this sort lies at the core of Matt Sconce’s ‘The Girl on the Mountain’, he adds another dimension to it wherein both the father figure and the child have a vacuum in their private lives that each fulfills for the other. Sadly, none of this is explored or for that matter, even realized in its entirety here.
The story of the film revolves around a composer named Jack Ward (Daniel O’Reilly) who is so dedicated to his craft that everything else in his life, including his family, is secondary. So when tragedy strikes, he abandons his bourgeoisie lifestyle and sets off for the mountains where he plans to kill himself as his guilt is overbearing (interestingly, he carries a fishing rod with him on this suicidal trip). There, amidst the wild, he comes across a mute young girl (Makenzie Sconce) with her own share of trauma and past tragedies, on the run from her abusive father. If any ideas are popping into someone’s head from this summary, chances are, they are in the plot of this film.
It’s a film with good intentions, a desire to carve out a simple thriller with a character-driven plot yet one bogged down by a heaping helping of its genre’s overused tropes. The character of Jack is a person who, true to his performer’s persona, dreams of applause and appreciation with every little thing he does in the beginning of the film, be it stepping over a few rocks or retrieving his daughter’s necklace seconds after accidentally dropping it in the river. It’s an arc that quite clearly does develop over time and O’Reilly is fairly dedicated to his performance, imbuing it with the emotional core that is expected. It’s Makenzie Sconce whose performance stands out amongst a plethora of characters too willing to be emotionally extreme. The scared girl who slowly learns to trust a man despite life having taught her differently is conveyed quite effectively by her without any histrionics.
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The problem of the film is not entirely a failure to elaborate on the ideas it presents but the fact that none of it actually feels real or original. In fact, the script itself feels like the product of a high school screenwriting project that someone wrote after playing ‘The Last of Us’, with the awareness that if they were asked to turn it into a film, they would not have the requisite budget to make it a dystopian horror movie. As far as characters go, it is earnest in trying to portray this filial bond yet is stunted by awkward dialogue which seems more like a collection of the kind of lines one would expect these characters to say to conclude such conversations, without actually building up to the words they utter.
This is worsened all the more by the tropes it sticks to irrationally, like when Jack wakes up from a dream where he is fastidiously rude to his daughter (Sarah Dorothy Little), acting as if it was a horrifying nightmare causing him to palpitate. Or when he, in a veritable leap in his character development, tells Aria that she’s worth fighting for, moments after their bond only begins to concretize. Such overreactions or lapses in its narrative which have an air of finality about them are a dime a dozen across its runtime. Visually too, it’s jarring in terms of how amateurish it looks. There’s a pristinely digital look to it which makes the sunlight look almost bleached at times and the colours feel washed out. The peppering of drone shots only points out how lacking it is in any visual structure, let alone any cinematic quality.
Then there is the inciting incident of the plot itself, so fundamentally flawed a choice Sconce makes that it’s actually difficult to imagine how he did not re-think the decision – why would Jack’s daughter expect him to pick her up from school, or not have his wife do the same when he has a seemingly most important concert which obviously is keeping him busy? If the idea is to portray the level of dysfunction existing in this family which stifles the most basic communication amongst them, then it’s clearly not well conveyed by this choice.
To its credit, ‘The Girl on the Mountain’ is aware of the genre movie it is and does not try to overdo itself. It’s clearly made with a lot of limitations which it does it’s very best to not make apparent and is visibly director Matt Sconce’s passion project. Sadly, all that does not amount to a film as such but feels more like a compilation of cutscenes from an indie adventure game. Its take on guilt, abuse, and trauma feels more like themes jutted into the script to substantiate it thematically rather than organic outgrowths of the plot itself. It may not be a bad film but by no stretch of the imagination is it a good one.