Rounding out to around 2,000 miles, the Appalachian Trail welcomes all who would tread its path. The number of hikers who walk its length from Georgia to Maine has dramatically increased since the 1930s (5 individuals then, and roughly 7,864 total in the last 8 years). The reasons people tackle the Trail are both numerous and often personal. For some, it’s about communing with nature, connecting with a part of themselves believed forgotten or missing. For others, however, it’s how the forced solitude offers an opportunity to declutter the mind, recenter the soul, and recapture clarity of purpose. Writer/director Matthew Brown opts for the latter in Maine, a quiet, contemplative tale of self-recovery via the Trail.
Crafting an adequate summary of Maine is vexingly difficult in its complex simplicity. On one hand, it’s a slice of life story which sees two hikers – Bluebird (Laia Costa) and Lake (Thomas Mann) – offer each other company as they hike the Appalachian Trail. That’s all that Maine is, yet it’s so much more. Relying heavily on kinesthetic communication, Maine is an exploration of love and grief, how circumstances don’t define us as individuals, and the search for control.
Brown sets the stage for what Maine is before the opening shot even appears as the sound of waves slowly gets louder and louder. Then, the first image we see is a distant figure walking into the ocean without hesitation or misgivings. Jumping to a mid-range, then a close-up, the audience first meets Bluebird as she wipes water from her face and then swims out into the ocean. In this simple opening, Brown presents the smallness of humanity before the grandeur of nature, while also setting up Bluebird as someone who either wants to give herself up to nature or conquer it. In the scenes that follow, Brown establishes Bluebird as a solitary hiker who’s been on the Trail for an unknown period, familiar with her tools and having developed a routine. The unexpected aspect, however, is the continued focus on nature over humanity. To clarify, there’s not a single line of dialogue until nearly 10-minutes into Maine, which means the audience must focus on what they see and hear. In this case, we track Bluebird as she wakes, pees, brushes her teeth, and packs herself up for travel. We watch her hike, joined by a young man – later revealed as Lake – in silence. However, in that 10-minute period, the audience is not left to fend for information, as Brown fills the space around Bluebird with meaning. It’s in the way Bluebird and Lake walk at a distance from each other in single-file, yet feel comfortable enough to strip nearly naked to go swimming. It’s how they share shelter and, when they do speak, seem to know intimate details about each other. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, evoking a strange fascination from the audience which compels them to stay locked in to see where Bluebird and Lake go, physically and emotionally.
Due to the heavy reliance on physicality to propel the story within Maine forward, the performances – especially those from Costa and Mann – need to be absolutely precise. In this regard, both are exceptional at communicating so much while doing so little. Without question, Maine is Bluebird’s story. It’s about her struggle with nature, as evidenced by the opening sequence and her attempt to walk the length of the Trail. However, so much of Bluebird’s character is about her internal struggle. In a later scene, Bluebird and Lake come to a shelter where another hiker is resting, who regales them with a song before passing the guitar to Lake. The song he sings is melancholic and the camera opts to focus on Bluebird who sits just behind him and over his shoulder. Unable to see her expression as he plays, the audience observes Bluebird experience countless emotions wash over her – joy, pain, love, and sorrow – each one demonstrated simply by a variety of micro expressions from Costa. Conversely, Mann portrays Lake as more brash and prone to vocal displays to convey his emotions, yet never childish, despite his seeming youth compared to Bluebird. A third character is worth mentioning as well – the Trail itself. Though it would be understanding to confuse the Trail as merely the backdrop for Maine, Brown and cinematographer Donald R. Monroe beautifully capture the contrasting tranquility and isolation of the Trail, making it something that doesn’t just exist, but something which, like the ocean at the start, is representative of Bluebird’s emotional journey.
The most frustrating thing about Maine is tied directly to what makes it so wonderful: an unrelenting ambiguity. The people who travel the Trail do so for a specific purpose and we, the audience, only peek in at this journey for only a brief time. The fact that the audience is thrown into Maine with little set-up or exposition is somehow gripping, making the audience grateful for any small nugget of dialogue to illuminate the true meaning of a glance. Especially due to the performances by Costa and Mann, the characters of Bluebird and Lake feel more like real people pushed forward by something deeply painful and less like characters on a page. However, just when the audience thinks they have a firm grasp on who these characters are, Maine dips back into ambiguity in a manner which cultivates confusion rather than clarity, even though the characters seem repurposed afterward.
Much like tackling the Appalachian Trail itself, Maine is more about learning from the journey. What the characters learn is questionable, but, for the audience, an introduction to a creator with a distinct talent for storytelling is offered. Brown’s minimalistic approach demands a great deal of patience from his audience, yet the rewards are plentiful. His story defies expectations created by exposition heavy dramas by making something more philosophical and internal wherein the audience must put themselves in the mind-sets of the characters. The lack of dialogue requires the audience to keep their expectations fluid and their attention intact. With so many stories rehashing the same techniques, Matthew Brown’s Maine offers something refreshingly new.
In select theaters December 13th, and available on VOD and digital December 14th, 2018.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.