Some argue that a town only truly comes to life once the sun has set. That’s when the things hiding from sunlight feel more comfortable to come out, stretch their legs, and roam the streets freely; when those who strive by day, are worn down enough to not notice what lives by night. It’s not exactly apathy, but a permeative exhaustion which takes hold, unable to process, handle, or address what may or may not be happening outside the walls of safety within their home, their yard, or their sight. It’s this time of day during which writer/director Van Ditthavong begins in his first feature-length film, All Roads to Pearla, a Texas-centric noir which guides the audience through the underbelly of a small Texas town where only the powerful rule and there is no justice.
High school wrestler Brandon Bell (Alex MacNicoll) wants only one thing: to get out of his town. Recognizing that his ticket out is wrestling, Brandon is devastated when a sudden injury puts him off the team, dashing any hopes of putting Texas in his rearview. However, an opportunity arises when Brandon bumps into Pearla (Addison Timlin), who offers him easy cash to drive her to a few appointments. With freedom in the air and a hint of desire, Brandon takes her up on the offer, accidentally putting his life on a collision course with destiny.
From the outside in, Ditthavong’s All Roads to Pearla is a little bit True Romance (1993), a splash of Elmore Leonard’s novel Up in Honey’s Room (2007), and the slow boil of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). This is more to provide a sense of understanding of the type of film Pearla is rather than to make a direct comparison as the direction and cinematography from both Ditthavong and director of photography Spenser T. Nottage (Splitting Image) are particularly unique from the aforementioned two films and novel. The cinematography is, by itself, especially striking as many of the daytime shots contain either a sickly, fluorescent light indicative of how Brandon feels regarding school, or an overly bright light as though to convey the oppression of the sun. In both scenarios, Nottage carries forward the sense that night brings an escape of the day, but also incredible terrors, beautiful and enrapturing as they may be. I say that because the direction and cinematography of the night sequences are, frankly, gorgeous. It’s either the way Dittavong stages the shot or how it’s lit, but it communicates as much as the dialogue in terms of how Brandon’s town responds to the freedom of night. It’s not that there are more lights or attractions, it’s that where the colors of day communicate oppression, the colors of night symbolize vibrancy and freedom. Being a noir, this does mean liberal use of neon reds and greens, some beautiful shots of dusk or twilight, though which is unclear, and heavy use of shadows. Nothing, though, is awash in any one color or style. This isn’t neon-soaked like the similarly fatalistic Terminal (2018) or introspective Blade Runner 2049 (2017), but the colors command attention in how they support the scene. Both visually and in staging, Dittavong is very much in control, presenting a clear vision of the Texas he remembers.
Beautiful though it may be, Pearla is nothing without its performances. Timlin is not the lead, that’s clearly MacNicoll, but she is a force of nature here. Audiences may be familiar with her from Showtime’s Californication (2011), a small role in Stand Up Guys (2012), the television series StartUp (2017-2018), as well as other projects since 2005. As Pearla, she is absolutely entrancing as the kind of pretty but messy girl that has a good heart despite a lifetime of bad choices. It’s the internal sweetness Timlin emanates that enables the audience to look past the clear torture Pearla puts herself through night after night at the behest of a near unrecognizable Dash Mihok as her handler/pimp Oz Bacco. It’s that sweetness Timlin is able to weaponized as Pearla, drawing in MacNicoll’s Brandon despite his knowing full well that the only thing that’ll come from her is trouble. MacNicoll plays Brandon as a straight arrow, which is what makes communicating Brandon’s inner desperation so important. MacNicoll nails this particular aspect, so that when one bad choice begets another, the audience can see within the performance all the places Brandon knows he should’ve made a different choice. A supporting players, the aforementioned Mihok, more known for his comedic performances offers something unbridled and unpredictable. In both writing and performance, Oz is a breathing nightmare whose mere presence sucks up all the light, an unexpected event from the frequent clown of an actor. Childhood favorite Corin Nemec (Parker Louis Can’t Lose), solid character actor Nick Chinlund (Con Air), and others round out the cast, adding not only color but full realization of the kind of people who live in Brandon’s town. Not a one is unimportant, not a one delivers a performance that doesn’t bring value to the total film.
Where the film deflates is the numerous mysteries and overlapping threads Dittavong puts forward with little to no explanation or payoff. On the one hand, there is no requirement for a film to answer every question it presents. Dittavong does an excellent job making his story feel real, not brought to life by characters. (Once more, hat tip to the cast.) In real life, there aren’t answers. Sometimes a tragedy happens and we are never clued in as to what happened or why. This frustration eats at us until either we die or come to terms with it. Dittavong even uses this particular aspect as a motivation for conflict between two characters in the film, as a narrative tool which sheds incredible light on the unspoken tension between the two, making the obvious resentment that hangs in the air more understandable. The problems arise not from these moments, but from the series of mysteries left at the edges which are presented as far more significant. For instance, the literal opening of the film features the local sheriff at a crime scene involving a naked teen being hit by a car. We don’t know who, we don’t know why, yet the film features several flashes back to this and a presumed tangential moment over and again. The repetition implies significance and the timing with other characters suggests connection, yet it’s never explained. We have presumption, we have insinuation, but nothing concrete. This frustrates only because so much of the film applies weight, applies intention and meaning, to this moment yet the connection to the central plot is so vague and amorphous as to inspire divine-like frustration. It certainly doesn’t help that the center of the quagmire Brandon finds himself is never fully explained so that the threats beyond the immediate are never fully realized. Instead, it’s just summed up as “no one steals from me.” A line which, while delivered well and with weight, contains no real meaning as the audience has no idea who the character is, their connection to the inciting incident, why the theft was done, and more. Life is full of mysteries, but a few moments made more concrete would take an interesting exploration of frustration and greed and make it extraordinary.
Despite the nagging frustration of a film more interested in the mystery rather than the answer, Dittavong’s feature film debut is a hell of a calling card. He demonstrates patience and style, pulls strong performances from his cast, and understands that quiet can often speak louder than any monologue. There’s promise on display, so whether you come to same conclusion about the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative, there is no arguing that Dittavong’s in possession of a distinctive perspective. More please.
Available on VOD and digital now.
Head to All Roads to Pearla’s official website for more information.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.