All Roads To Pearla

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

All Roads To Pearla
"Ditthavong comes from a photography background and the film is beautifully framed and lit throughout."

A clueless but well-intentioned teenager looking for a purpose meets a beautiful but deeply troubled twentysomething woman with a violent boyfriend, and you could be forgiven for thinking you've seen this one before. It's a well-trodden path in film noir and this film has, in particular, a great deal in common with Blue Velvet, with whole scenes that play out in very similar ways. That's not to say that there's no reason to watch it, however. Writer director Van Ditthavong certainly knows how to create atmosphere and noir was always about style over substance.

Brandon (Alex MacNicoll) is a high school student whose brother has died, whose father has left and whose mother takes out all her distress and frustration on him. He's getting through it all by devoting himself to wrestling, the only thing at which he has much talent, in the kind of forsaken small town that makes El Paso look exciting. He has a vague flirtation going on with a local girl but as soon as he catches sight of the wayward yet glamorous Pearla (Addison Timlin), it's clear that there's only one ill-advised romantic adventure for him. Of course he denies it at first. He asks if she's hooker. She, deeply insulted, retorts that she's simply paid to make people happy. He has a vehicle. She asks him to drive her. She'll pay. For a guy like Brandon, there are rewards here beyond anything he could possibly have imagined.

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MacNicoll makes a solid lead, able to explore the more obnoxious aspects of his character without ever losing that essential sweetness, able to portray naivety without coming across simply as stupid. Timlin gets less to do but works hard with what she's got, managing to make Pearla feel real if not easily distinguished from the archetype. The two have enough chemistry to let viewers wonder if she's using him or if there's something real developing between them. Perhaps it doesn't matter. This is not a genre that bodes well for lovers.

As Pearla's boyfriend/pimp Oz, Dash Mihok brings something different - a playfulness that verges on the comedic but can abruptly turn into aggression, reminiscent of Dennis Hopper's turn n the aforementioned Blue Velvet. He's simply a bigger personality than Pearla or Brandon, so it's easy to see why they lose their nerve in his presence - and, of course, polite sporting discipline is no match for the kind of fighting honed on the streets. If anything, Brandon's wrestling background makes him seem more vulnerable. From the moment these characters meet, they're spiralling towards a violent confrontation.

Ditthavong comes from a photography background and the film is beautifully framed and lit throughout. Every scene gives the impression of having emerged from a visual idea, the slight narrative easily bent into shape to fit. Curtis Heath's music complements this perfectly. All Roads To Pearla has a dreamlike quality, absorbing despite the familiarity of its subject - and if one is going to create a calling card, one might as well demonstrate that one can master an established form. This is a much more compelling film than you might expect, and it hints at good things to come.

Reviewed on: 23 Sep 2020
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A high school wrestler becomes a driver for a call girl with a violent pimp.

Director: Van Ditthavong

Writer: Van Ditthavong

Starring: Addison Timlin, Corin Nemec, Nick Chinlund, Dash Mihok

Year: 2019

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: US

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