I don’t want to mess this up.
Nick’s (Dustin Gooch) mother just passed away. One more source of stress to go along with marriage, parenthood, and the reality that a year of not taking a paycheck is about to end with the opening of his own restaurant. You can’t blame him for being scatterbrained and temperamental, but something about the way he’s internalizing his anxiety seems off. His wife Abby (Ashlee Heath) calls him out on it too. She knows the pressure he’s facing and what the future holds for them, but she’s not going to let it be an excuse for him to avoid being present in their lives. Nick does understand. He’s also just a selfish guy with a one-track mind and blinders to everything else. He might have gotten that from mom.
Director Timothy Hall and his co-writer Jonathan P. Foster do a wonderful job placing this reality into the fabric of their script Landlocked while presenting an alternative (and false) truth in its place. The reason is Nick himself and the past that he remembers. His mother was everything to him when his dad left and, as a result, every flaw he possesses is seen as a product of that abandonment. Nick will twist himself into a pretzel until he’s ready to explode for no other reason than to prove to himself that he’s not his father. He can handle a career and family while caring for his son without wanting to escape. He can give little Davis everything he never had. Yet that’s all based on a lie.
Maybe “lie” is too harsh. Let’s say “half-truth.” Because his father did leave. The circumstances, however, add a gigantic asterisk to the act. Why? Because he had to leave. We’re talking about a very strict Catholic family in a very conservative part of Georgia and a man who knew for a long time that he was really a woman. Briana (Delia Kropp) left for survival. And while Nick can intellectually appreciate that detail in the story of his adolescence now, he’s spent twenty years fostering a resentment against her that began at a time when he couldn’t. Those feelings don’t just go away. Nick can’t suddenly ignore what happened to his teenage self, but Briana also doesn’t deserve to be vilified for it as if context doesn’t exist.
To therefore use the word “awkward” to describe a road trip where the two of them drive for hours to the beach they used to go to as a family (where Nick’s mother’s ashes are to be scattered) is an understatement. And it’s not a coincidence that it took Lily’s death to finally reunite these two again. We may not literally hear the words until the end, but we can tell. She was the wall that kept them apart. Whether religion-based bigotry or just plain bigotry on its own, she didn’t want Briana near her child. Not only that, but Nick was raised to believe she was right. That’s what indoctrination does. It divides by projecting a false sense of morality onto situations that demand empathy instead.
I give Hall and Foster a lot of credit here because this topic is not an easy one to broach without falling prey to proselytizing. One side uses it to bolster its righteousness while the other uses it to expose that righteousness as hate and nothing is won with choirs simply preaching to themselves. Landlocked takes a different approach. It simply is. It treats Briana like a human being, allows Nick to own his anger even as he realizes its origins were born in hate, and lets their collision play out with all the uncomfortable silences, thinly veiled mistrust, explosive fireworks, and heartfelt conversations long since overdue that it deserves. And we always see through the cracks before Nick does. Hall and Foster let him get there himself.
By that I mean little moments full of dramatic weight those too quick to dismiss the messenger (even when it’s themselves) are prone to miss. An example: how Nick processes the news that Briana can’t drive because her license was revoked for DUIs. He laughs, calling her a lush to his wife. Abby asks whether she drank when he was a kid and Nick suddenly remembers one time when his dad took a lot of pills and had to go to the doctor shortly before the divorce. To him it’s a memory of excess, but we know it was more. This was a man wrestling his identity as a macho, God-fearing physician with a family against his transgender woman truth who probably believed there was no way out.
And maybe Nick would come to that realization if he allowed himself to listen to what Briana had to say. Will they finally confront what happened with the necessary background and maturity age has afforded them at the price of two decades apart? That’s ultimately the film’s big question. Because Nick didn’t invite her on this trip to reconnect. He decided to procure her phone number now to close the door for good. He thought his mother being alive was perhaps the thing keeping it open when Lily was really the one who started closing it in the first place. Nick subconsciously knows this too, but that’s not enough to bring it to the surface and face its consequences. Forgiveness? Maybe. Maybe not. Briana deserves understanding at least.
Gooch and Kropp are both fantastic in their depiction of this emotional tumult. He is never without a microaggression or fake smile deflecting her kindness so as not to ever feel like he owes her something. She is always ready to bide her time and cut her losses when seeing that reaction, hoping he will either thaw or harden to the point where he’ll say something of substance that she can use to try and explain herself. Whether they’re cautiously testing boundaries or desperately fighting to be heard, every second is authentically drawn in a way that keeps the potential for reconciliation at a coin flip. And that’s how it should be. A relationship this complicated can’t be fixed in under a week, but it can start mending.
courtesy of the Buffalo International Film Festival