“How To Blow Up A Pipeline”: The Teen Hero Reborn.

“You’re an orphan now, that’s like, origin story shit.”

From the first shot of a hooded hero, you’re all in on Daniel Goldhaber and Ariela Barer’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Co-written by both, directed by one, and starring the other, this heavy-hitting thriller rages against a real world full of great powers who take no responsibility and asks: what if the only difference between being normal and being a hero is giving a shit?

HTBUAP3.Courtesy of NEON

Ariela Barer’s as Xochitl in HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE. Photo courtesy of NEON.

This is not a superhero movie, but also, it is. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a thriller about vigilante justice, and in a post-Avengers world, it knows that whenever two people debate the meaning of justice, the audience will likely think of “public menaces” like Batman, Spider-Man, and Daredevil just as much as they will Black Lives Matter or the Defund movement. That’s why this heist film is also an origin story film. An ensemble of teen and young-adult vigilantes from all different backgrounds fighting for justice, debating the ethics of the “one rule” motif (no killing), taking extreme lengths to conceal their secret identities, and even training with their abilities, so to speak. No one has “powers,” people certainly wear (safety) masks, and your butt will stay clenched and on-edge the entire time.

HTBUAP5.Courtesy of NEON

L-R: Forrest Goodluck as Michael and Marcus Scribner as Shawn in HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE. Photo courtesy of NEON.

No matter your politics, you will be entertained and invested. This is a film in dialogue with the very nature of heroism, and man, we can’t help falling in love with heroes. One of the best comparisons to this film’s cast would be The Breakfast Club (1985), something the film seems to want you to think of as well whenever they all strike a pose together. There’s Xochitl and Shawn (Barer and Marcus Scribner), university students driven by a sense of duty, spurred on by tragedy. On the other side of the divide, you have Dwayne (Jake Weary), the conservative Texan farmer with a love of guns and Jesus. His land’s been stolen by the Federal Government, the right-hand-man of the Oil Industry. Some of the highlights of the film are his short interactions with Forrest Goodluck’s Michael, an Indigenous zealot who’s tired of watching white Americans ravage his ancestral land. Their understated alliance is an example of this film’s magic trick, actual unity. On paper, Michael hates everything Dwayne loves, but they share one thing in common, the rich are leaving them to die.  Everyone in this film and, the film argues, everybody in the audience, is being left for dead — the farmers, the burnouts, the help, the prodigies, the straight, the queer, the family man, and the loner, it doesn’t matter. You’re not rich, so you’re under attack. And self-defense rarely looks this cool.

Tehillah De Castro’s camera is sprinting with urgency from moment one, mixing handheld photography, uniquely compelling inserts, and POV tracking shots that pack as much story into the blocking as possible. One roaming shot that washes over you is a “basic” piece of coverage, a shot of one character walking up to another. In one move we follow a climate victim to the polluting refinery behind them to a string of cars spewing new fumes from the same fuel to diesel trucks hauling clouds of black smog and finally over to our hero. It’s quick, it’s efficient, it’s just one of many great shots in the film.

The screenplay is adapted from a non-fiction book of the same title, and even though the book isn’t really a how-to guide, a lesser version of this film would have used narration from the book throughout, guiding you through the steps of taking on the oil industry. Instead, the film squeezes all the cinematic power it can out of real-world stakes. This is a film with urgency, and it needs you to feel some, not just for your edification, but also your entertainment.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline comes at what seems like an inflection point in pop culture. This is a film that makes heroes out of “ecoterrorists,” which have existed for years in pop-culture as anti-heroes and world-conquering villains. But as the kids raised on climate change warnings have grown up and taken their place as writers and paying audiences, this has started to change. In a comic book-drenched culture, changes to the status quo happen like tremors before the earthquake. Poison Ivy, once a seductress obsessed with saving individual plant phyla, has now become an anti-hero, the avatar of green life itself. Namor the Sub-Mariner, who originally fought U-boats invading his oceanic territory, now rails against polluting nations, first as a villain, then an anti-hero, and now an out-and-out hero once again. Just this year in Batman – One Bad Day: Ra’s Al Ghul, the iconic archenemy of “The Detective,” once portrayed by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins (2005), has to (spoilers) kill Batman, spend two years killing all of the world’s oil executives and installing new, heroic heads of industry, then resurrect Batman, just to save the world, because in a world where Batman will save any life, how else can someone save every life? As the climate crisis grows worse and worse, moderating voices of slow-change saying “trust the system” and “wait for the evidence” are shrinking in influence, and what was once radical is becoming a uniting force.

HTBUAP4.Courtesy of NEON

Clockwise: Forrest Goodluck as Michael, Jake Weary as Dwayne, Kristen Froseth as Rowan, Lukas Cage as Logan, Marcus Scribner as Shawn, Ariela Barer as Xochitl, Jayme Lawson as Alisha, and Sasha Lane as Theo in HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE. Photo courtesy of NEON.

On a personal note, this author will never forget when in the summer of 2021, I stood in an auditorium at a Centrifuge Christian Youth Camp and watched a briefing on the climate crisis. I was there as a videographer, and during the time where they collect donations for missionaries abroad, they played a message. These missionaries were begging for the audience to take the climate crisis seriously. They were stationed somewhere in Central America, and they were reporting from one of the caravan routes heading for the Texas/Mexico border. Why? It wasn’t for the drug trade, it wasn’t to take your jobs, it was for food. The soil had dried up near the equator, and their grocery stores were out of food. These missionaries probably didn’t vote for Al Gore in 2000, and neither did the parents of their audience, but here they were, begging this camp full of conversative, evangelical soon-to-be voters to see the truth with their own eyes: The climate crisis is already taking lives, and the weather doesn’t care what party you register with.

HTBUAP.Lead.Courtesy of NEON

Forrest Goodluck as Michael in HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE. Photo courtesy of NEON.

I don’t think their plea worked, but this film does. It captures lightning in a bottle, that universal sense of present danger and moral imperative they were trying so hard to communicate, then packages it in a highly entertaining package well worth your money at the box office. It’s made for the Dwaynes just as much as for the Xochitls and it’s the rarest of things a film can be — genuinely original.

In select theaters April 7th, 2023.
In wide release April 21st, 2023.

For more information, head to the official NEON How to Stop a Pipeline website.

Final Score: 5 out of 5.


Categories: Films To Watch, In Theaters, Recommendation, Reviews

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