UK road trip films are a rarity. There just doesn’t seem to be that vast expanse of road for the mileage to get under the skin of anything juicy. Long Way Back, directed by Brett Harvey, gets over that by evoking the essence of an emotional journey that covers time as well as distance, regret as well as a potential for some kind of hope. And a trip to Cornwall is always longer than you think.
Battling with a future that didn’t quite pan out, a rock star wannabe dad with carefully gathered tales of bands of the past, and a romantic version of himself that only the acerbic boredom of his estranged teenage daughter can cut through, is called on for a difficult journey.
Estranged dad David gets a message to pick up his daughter Lea from university in Manchester and take her home to Cornwall. There’s been an incident, and mum can’t make it. At the uni, he’s met with withering looks and a room to pack up, including photos from his daughter’s course as well as memorabilia that young people accumulate. One important image is that of the ‘nearly home trees’, a copse on a hill beside the A30 near Linton in Devon. The trees serve as a signal to anyone driving home to Cornwall that their journey is almost over.
Chloe Endean as Lea inhabits the teenager / young person. Her brash moments have tinges of vulnerability; and her sometimes a growing tenderness that doesn’t stray too far from someone who’s ready to pull up the emotional shutters at a moment’s notice. She’s weary more than hopeful, she dislikes her dad’s dreary music, and it’s her photographic gaze that adds to the distance, as well as offering some insight.
David, played by Tristan Sturrock with crumpled charm, is a man on the run, using his own romantic notion of himself as a barrier to the world. He has a faded and threadbare cultured chic while he walks the tightrope of his own fantasy, regret and bemusement that the world didn’t quite work out the way he thought it would. Sometimes he falls off, but mostly he wobbles, the arms of his inner psyche frantically spinning to stay upright.
A ballet of its own
The uncomfortable relationship is a ballet all of its own, bringing cringingly awkward moments to the fore. Two unfamiliar souls sharing a confined space make for an edgy environment in the epic trip.
As he packs the boot with Lea’s things to leave university, David eyes a group of young people loitering near the car.
“They’re first years, they don’t know what to say,” says Lea.
They have the gangling awkwardness of youth, and lack the social strength and experience to deal with potentially difficult situations. So, what’s David’s excuse?
“In my day, people helped each other,” he huffs, another reference to a past that may not have existed. And on this day, he gets help with his worn out car and creepy coffee ordering techniques on the journey. The past and the present aren’t exactly aligned.
On the way from Manchester to Cornwall, they call in on a kindly-but-chaotic mother figure in Mid-Wales. It’s not quite a refuge, but Susan Penhaligon’s Angie has warmth and easy understanding. For David, it could be another place to hide, but he needs to get to Cornwall.
With an eye to the idiosyncratic nature of the British roadways and countryside, the cinematography takes a deadpan gaze at the bizarre world, letting the oddness linger before moving on. Original songs by singer songwriter Luke Toms add to the strange intimacy and sit seamlessly with Matthew Tomason’s score.
From the first feature, the comedy Weekend Retreat, through Brown Willy, writer-director Brett has been notching up the drama. Long Way Back is skillfully controlled and perfectly told. Made not long after being diagnosed with young-onset Parkinsons – an issue Brett explores in his perfectly crafted short Hand – there’s a depth it wears lightly, which doubles its impact.
What makes Long Way Back so compelling is its intelligent storytelling. Deftly fragmented and balanced, the film draws out what’s inside both performances and gives such satisfaction to an audience willing to join the ride from the outside. It’s the kind of road movie that covers miles, and it’s the kind of journey you won’t forget.
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