Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"For all its harshness, the landscape of Death Valley is beautiful and makes a stunning impression on the big screen."

In the summer, Death Valley regularly reaches temperatures in the high forties (Celsius); sometimes it gets into the fifties. It's something locals acclimatise to, to an extent, but it can still be deadly, killing at least one person a year in the National Park itself, whilst others die of starvation after getting lost there, or simply disappear. Places like this give rise to legends of supernatural terrors, predatory animals and crazed killers, yet again and again people underestimate how deadly nature can be all by itself.

Jae (Mischa Barton) is herself a killer. She's been serving time for he third degree murder (equivalent to manslaughter) of her mother. Now she has returned to the small town where she grew up, and she's met by predictable hostility. Her brother Robin (Jackson Davis) is planning to travel out into the desert to the Burn The Moon music festival with girlfriend Rosemary (Winter Ave Zoli), so she decides to tag along. After car trouble en route, they meet strangers in bar, discover they're going to the same event, and decide to travel together. Despite an uncertain first impression, the strangers turn out to be friendly. There's a night of laughter, flirtation and peyote consumption underneath the brilliant stars. In the morning, however, when they realise that their vehicle is damaged and they have no idea which way to walk to find help, things don't look so good.

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Over the days that follow, things grow increasingly desperate. Initial hostility between Jae and Rosemary gives way to respect as they recognise one another's abilities, but the structure of the group as a whole doesn't take long to fracture. The fundamental mistake is made almost immediately - leaving the vehicle behind, thus making themselves much harder to find and losing the directional clues it offered - but they do at least have a decent supply of water and a few good ideas. What they don't have is a basic grasp of orienteering. Viewers in the same position will find their story more engrossing. Others may become frustrated, but the scenario is undeniably realistic.

For all its harshness, the landscape of Death Valley is beautiful and makes a stunning impression on the big screen. The group manages to wander through quite a lot of it, taking in the mountains along its rim, the large open pans and some of its famous dunes. It's a major player in setting the mood, more important because not all the young actors are up to the job. The further they are required to stray from the familiar as their characters begin to break down, the less convincing the film becomes. Fortunately Barton makes an effective lead and the contrast highlights the gulf of experience between happy go lucky young things whose lives revolve around fun and a young woman who has already faced her share of adversity. Whilst the camera tends to stay too close for us to fully appreciate the isolation they face, she has been socially isolated all along. Now she can choose between acceptance by strangers who don't know her past, and relying purely on herself - which might not be such a bad idea.

Though it falls short of its aspirations as a character-driven thriller, Deserted is certainly effective as a cautionary tale, and it shows that the increasingly busy Barton is worth keeping an eye on.

Reviewed on: 28 Feb 2017
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Deserted packshot
A group of young people gets lost in the desert.

Director: Ashley Avis

Writer: Ashley Avis

Starring: Mischa Barton, Jackson Davis, Winter Ave Zoli, Trent Ford, Dana Rosendorff, Michael Milford, Kelly Brannigan

Year: 2016

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US


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