When we first meet Anna (Jessalyn Gilsig), the high-strung heroine of writer-director Jeremy O’Keefe’s slight, winsome road movie Somewhere Slow, she’s already dancing on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s there in the film’s opening scene, when she walks into a fast food restaurant and orders three cheeseburgers in a high, reedy voice that cracks like porcelain, her phony cheer choked with desperation. After wolfing down the burgers, she retires to the bathroom, daintily unwraps a toilet seat cover, and throws them back up. Caught in the ritual, she reapplies her makeup until her blotchy, stress-lined face resembles a corpse in a funeral parlor. Then she leaves, although we get the sense that she’ll be back for more tomorrow.
So what brought Anna to this lowly state? It would be difficult to narrow it down to just one culprit. Her husband Robert (Breaking Bad veteran David Costabile) isn’t a cruel man, just hopelessly dull and controlling, leading Anna through her weekly routine like a father escorting his dimwitted child. Her mother, sweet-tempered but distant, is grappling with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Her sister has already written her off as a negligent sad sack. Her job as a skin-care rep at a Delaware cosmetics company is on the line after months of stagnant sales. As the pressure continues to mount, Anna becomes possessed with an all-consuming urge to roam, to shed the past and become a new woman. After witnessing a convenience store robbery that leaves behind two bullet-riddled corpses and an unclaimed bag of cash, Anna sees her long-awaited chance for freedom and takes it.
Soon she’s sitting shotgun in a semi-truck, bound for the same journey of self-discovery countless other movie characters have made before her. The difference is in the quality of her company. Her first stop leads to a chance encounter with Travis (Graham Patrick Martin), a teenaged Mormon drifter who’s determined to trace his lineage all the way back to the time of Christ. Despite the notable age difference, Anna gradually falls for the young tramp’s crooked smile and sunny disposition, and before long the fragile, solitary woman has gained herself a wiseacre traveling companion, one who might ultimately save her life.
Let me be clear: Somewhere Slow isn’t trying to rewrite the rules of the indie road movie. It just explores these familiar characters – the woman on the run, the enigmatic teen drifter whose “old soul” insights are coupled with surprising naiveté – with a greater degree of respect, empathy and insight than we’re used to seeing in other films. The basic plot points, however, remain largely unchanged.
For example, it should come as a shock to no one that what begins as a platonic partnership inevitably blossoms into a full-blown love affair, complete with a weekend rendezvous in an abandoned beach house, stone-skipping contests and long bike rides through town. This portion of the film occasionally drags, especially compared to the early scenes of Anna in her life of suburban discontent. In fact, for a good portion of its second half, O’Keefe’s screenplay runs the risk of devolving into a harlequin romance about a middle-aged woman running off with a studly minor. Only the power of the two central performances prevents the film from succumbing to the soppier conventions of its genre.
Martin does an admirable job contrasting Travis’s romantic side with his obsessive need for privacy. Like Anna, he’s combating his own demons – his include prostitution and a regrettable liaison with an abusive nude photographer – and depends on his nomadic existence in order to avoid forming attachments, a facet of his personality that comes to the forefront as the film nears its inevitable conclusion. His performance, alternately playful and melancholy but never once “quirky” for its own sake, contains some of the same wounded vitality embodied by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin and Kevin Zegers in the underrated Transamerica, another road movie involving a quest to reclaim one’s identity.
At the end of the day, though, Somewhere Slow wouldn’t work without Gilsig, an actress who honed her craft for years on network series such as Glee and Boston Legal. Her transformation from petrified wallflower to self-actualized woman forms the backbone of the movie’s unique appeal. The interactions she has with characters in the service industry, especially the great Robert Forster during his sadly brief appearance as a Laundromat owner, are all priceless examples of a great actor playing someone who can’t act to save her life. Her incredibly vulnerable portrayal of Anna is a vital part of what makes Somewhere Slow such a focused, compassionate film, the kind that deserves to find an audience beyond the festival circuit.