Don’t let one tragedy cause another.
The start of Miguel Duran‘s Monsoon is like its own short film. We meet John (Austin Lyon) and Sarah (Katherine Hughes) the weekend the former is supposed to be moving east for Cornell while she remains closer to home in the Arizona desert. They’re best friends and have been since childhood thanks to living next door to one another. There’s an easy rapport between them that flirts with romanticism just before they shake themselves awake to carry on a platonic camaraderie unencumbered by the potential drama of a kiss. Except what if they both are willing to take that risk? What if their friendship can be the foundation for a love able to sustain them for the rest of their lives? The chance for happiness is worth it.
The result is a conversation of “what ifs” and “what wills,” the pair laughing and smiling about the past, present, and future because they know everything is going to be different come morning. He’ll be miles away cross-country and she’ll be vacationing with her mother to take her mind off the sorrow. So why not make this day one they’ll never forget? Get the other laughing with hypothetical scenarios meant to evolve their friendship and take a long drive towards Sedona to get away from all the noise that isn’t created from within. We become privy to their personal thoughts and motivations for a natural progression forward that feels authentic because their awkwardness and excitement does too. It’s as though fate finally let their hearts take over.
Destiny is often fickle and cruel, though. This afternoon and evening that should be the beginning of a new chapter together becomes the catalyst for a goodbye neither is ready to confront. It’s no spoiler to say that Sarah doesn’t make it back home. When the logline mentions tragedy ripping them apart, it means her death. There’s no mistaking what happens either—no potential to discover she actually survived and thus have the image of her that John talks with be more than a ghostly manifestation of his own grief. It’s conversely crucial for her to be gone as the next hour-and-a-half hinges upon what her absence means to him and how he ultimately struggles to cope. He must learn to let go not to forget, but to remember.
The moments that prove this are what shine brightest when placed alongside those initial fifteen or so minutes of pure life. It’s the shift in John’s demeanor and attitude that arises from “Sarah” being by his side crosscut with the heartfelt, knowing glimpses of his grandmother (Eve Plumb) showing that he’s actually alone. It’s the arguments he has with “Sarah” when feelings for someone else are stoked months after the accident, ones that ask whether Caitlyn (Yvette Monreal) is a replacement, potential love, or just distraction. John stumbles as he traverses this new and unfamiliar existence without his best friend—one that’s made infinitely harder knowing he’s not only a day’s car ride away. He’s emotionally distraught and in denial, crying for help without realizing that’s what’s happening.
Unfortunately for the severity and efficacy of this tonal avenue mining the psychological impact of losing someone so young—alongside subplots dealing with Grandma’s mortality, Dad’s (Scott Lowell) lack of self-confidence, and Caitlyn’s own deep-seeded anguish yet to be uncovered—Duran veers towards comedy with moments that subvert the drama’s success rather than augment it. I get the reason, though. Some of the subject matter he’s dealing with is dark, cutting, and boldly shown with full complexity intact. While that stuff can get oppressive without a satisfactory release via distraction, I’m not certain a goofy boss bordering on slapstick (Joseph Lake Guffey‘s Chad) is the solution. This character is fine on its own, but I couldn’t help getting pulled out of the film whenever he entered the frame.
This goes for certain situations wherein their surface works against their themes too. It happens at a party meant to focus on John’s instability and the ease at which he can numb his pain with alcohol. But while we infer this is the point of these circumstances and what happens afterwards with Caitlyn, it’s delivered as though part of a teenage sex comedy. That disconnect made it hard to wrap my head around intent until after Duran reins it in with a perfectly placed vision of “Sarah” at the most inopportune time. I’m not saying Monsoon shouldn’t deal with John’s age and the self-medication available to him—that’s an important part of the film. I merely wish it serviced the message more than its role providing comic relief.
I say this because many scenes pack a potent emotional punch deserving of space to linger. The closer John gets to being healed, the more adversarial his conversations with “Sarah” become. This means getting at the root of what he’s feeling and unearthing the guilt, shame, and regret lying below his grief. Pair this clarity with the anger and frustration felt by those surrounding him and the drama crescendos towards a nexus point of catharsis that never came off as manipulative to me. It helps that Grandma doesn’t have time for bullshit, Dad isn’t averse to tantrums (mostly in the form of running away), and Caitlyn isn’t some shallowly drawn love interest like first appearances presume. Besides Mom (Brenda Jean Foley), those closest to John may surprise you.
So I wonder what could’ve been without the injected humor. Monsoon is at its best when it lets its characters be vulnerable enough to slide into a rage that can’t simply be shrugged off with a laugh. This is why those moments shared between John and Caitlyn often hit the hardest. He’s constantly finding himself caught in a daydream consuming his reality while she’s discovering that her desire to open him up from his shell means leaving her own. Rather than force contrition upon them, however, Duran lets their emotions run their course because their shared trajectory isn’t about being saved or doing the saving. It’s about finding secure footing on their terms to remember they’re stronger because of those they lost, not weaker for having lost them.