In this week’s minor VOD releases, an American falls in love in Australia, a stoner buries himself alive, and John Malkovich cashes a paycheck.
Road to Perth (Select theaters January 7; VOD January 18): Mopey American Alex (Tommy O’Brien) is on a sort of spiteful vacation to Australia after his girlfriend rejects his marriage proposal and decides not to join him on their planned trip. He’s traveling around aimlessly when he meets the equally mopey Australian Ronnie (Hannah Lehmann), who’s been left on her own to scatter her late father’s ashes. Alex agrees to drive Ronnie cross-country to Perth, stopping at various locations where she can honor her father’s memory. Writer-director Chad Peter is clearly influenced by Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, but Road to Perth is less talky than those films, preferring to portray the growing connection between Alex and Ronnie in quiet, contemplative moments that build emotional resonance. That can make the movie feel a bit wispy and insubstantial, but O’Brien and Lehmann (who are both credited with writing additional material) have sweet, understated chemistry, and their engaging romantic journey doubles as a lovely Australian travelogue. Grade: B
I, Challenger (VOD January 11): Like its perpetually baked main character, this stoner comedy has trouble figuring out a direction, with a plot that lurches haphazardly in various directions before settling on an incongruously high-stakes set piece for its final act. Amiable slacker Sid (James Duval) spends his time playing video games and selling weed to teenagers but is starting to feel that there should be something more to life now that he’s in his 40s. His misadventures include a disturbing Tinder hook-up with an aggressive dominatrix played by Margaret Cho and a theological debate with a pair of door-to-door missionaries. Eventually he enlists his gaming buddy Logan (Coy Stewart) to help him participate in a viral online challenge that involves being buried alive for 24 hours. The movie’s tone shifts awkwardly from goofy comedy to existential freakout to life-or-death suspense, all with the same indistinct haziness. Sid just bumbles through, without anything much mattering to the characters or the audience. Grade: C
The Whaler Boy (VOD and select theaters January 14): A cautionary tale about the perils of teenage horniness, this Russian coming-of-age drama opens in a Detroit studio where sex workers prepare for online cam shows. As the performer known as HollySweet999 (Kristina Asmus) smiles and writhes in front of her webcam, filmmaker Philipp Yuryev switches perspectives to the other side of the world, where a group of weathered men in fishing gear watch her performance on a laptop in a seaside hut. In a remote whaling village in the Chukotka region of Russia, teenager Leshka (Vladimir Onokhov) becomes obsessed with Holly, even though he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a camgirl. The contrast between the two worlds is bracing, like a bit of Zola seeping into an Andrey Zvyagintsev movie. Yuryev brings in surrealist elements as Leshka sets out on a quest for Holly, making the story into a version of a timeless (if baffling) fable that happens to include internet porn. Grade: B-
Shattered (VOD and select theaters January 14; DVD/Blu-ray February 22): Pandemic restrictions have led to a boom in low-budget movies set in giant isolated houses, and Shattered has all the hallmarks of a film written to accommodate an available location. In this Lifetime-level story, a seemingly innocent young woman (Lilly Krug) cozies up to a brooding tech millionaire (Shameless’ Cameron Monaghan) in the Montana ski town where he owns a huge vacation home. Multiple astonishingly terrible sex scenes later, she’s insinuated herself into his life, setting herself up as his caretaker after his leg is broken during a mugging. She is, of course, out to steal his money and destroy his life, which she reveals in an expository monologue while menacingly eating fried chicken. Cue the dialogue that sounds like it was written by aliens, copious gratuitous nudity, and overwrought reveals of painfully obvious plot twists. Not even John Malkovich strutting around in a garish parka as a sleazy landlord can make this watchable. Grade: D-
Ditched (VOD January 18; DVD/Blu-ray February 15): Writer-director Christopher Donaldson’s debut feature starts out as a lean survival thriller: An ambulance and a police car that were transporting two dangerous criminals to medical facilities have been forced off the highway, landing in a ravine. The paramedics and police officers must find help while keeping their prisoners locked up and fending off mysterious assailants in the surrounding woods. Marika Sila plays the competent, proactive paramedic who takes charge, and Kris Loranger plays the Hannibal Lecter-like serial killer who issues taunts while strapped to a gurney. The more that Donaldson reveals about what’s actually happening, the less interesting the movie becomes, culminating in an interminable monologue by the main villain as he explains every minute detail of his motivation in relation to each individual character. Donaldson overdoses on lens flares to the point that they often entirely obscure the action, but he still delivers moments of effective suspense within the clumsy narrative. Grade: C+