'WHEN I FIND THE OCEAN' dvd reveiw
Lee with Diane Ladd & director Tonya S Holly.
'When I Find the Ocean' has been a labour of love for writer, producer and director, Tonya S. Holly. The movie tells the story of young Lily Strickland and her quest to escape an unhappy home life and see the ocean, drawn to it by the calling of her father, a sailor who was lost at sea. Lilly sets off on her journey, leaving behind a distraught mother and grandparents who franticly organise a search party, with the help of the local sheriff, to find the young girl. Pursued by poachers, and a black panther, the young girl is befirended by a Amos, an afro-american tug boat captain, a man with his own tragic past and present-day problems. And all of this is set against a background of the 60's civil rights movement.
After more than 2 years of updates and waiting, we really wanted to like this film. We'd waited paitently trhough film festivals ,delayed DVD releases, and the possibility of a theatrical release. I mean so things were in it's favour: a great and promising trailer, Lee as the lead character's grandparent, a young girl and her cute golden lab'setting out on a great adventure, plus a big black cat as the 'baddie'. Surely fire ingrediantes for a git movie. You would think, wouldn't you. Sadly the finished product fails to deliver. Whilst the movie has it's heart in the right place and has a gorgeous opening sequence of river and landscape scenery, it's difficult to get involved with Lily and her plight and this is ultimately one of the film's downfalls.
The film ticks all the right boxes, but one of the problems is there are too many boxes being ticked and the film tries to do everything and much dipping your toe in one of it's cool on-screen streams, it wants to dip into every narrative thread it has and by doing so comes up short. The story could have done with some much needed paring back to concentrate on just Lily's adventure. It's frustrating that you glimpse story moments that you want to know more about - such as the relationship between Lily and Amos, both running from family they've lost - but are never followed through to their promised potential. Or alternatively there are story elements that you just wonder why they are in there as they bring nothing to the table and could easily have been left out, such as Lily's rabbit she takes along with her and a civil rights march. Yes, it's the 60's and we're down South and there are some race issues touched upon in the story, it's a nice idea, but ultimately you don't need it, the march is irrelevant to the story or the characters' journey. The same goes for the black panther in the story. It seems to be there to support the introduction of a couple of poachers - 2 of the film's more interesting, but under used, characters - and to add some threat element for Lily. But Lily is never really in any danger from the large cat, and the poachers could have been introduced as just poachers. The cat ultimately doesn't DO anything, despite the promise of some interaction between it and Lily in the film's trailer, which is a shame as it is a beautiful animal.
Most of the time the film is just flowing by, and unlike the ocean Lily sets out to find, there is little change in the ebb and flow of the narrative. No-one every seems to get as angry/upset/frightened/worried as you expect with a young girl lost who knows where. Events unfold but overall they come across lacking any sense of urgency. We wanted to see people shouting, running round, Lily running or hiding from something. There's never any real danger for Lily, aside from early on. You want to feel for her, but she's never really put in any danger or faces any major challenge. We understand the limitaions of the budget, and the shoot, but Lilly needed some BIG moment, such as a close face-off with the panther, but it's a pay-off the audience never gets. The movie would have benefited from dropping most of the search party scenes, many of which are dull and not that interesting, and spent the extra screen time concentrating more on Lily's adventure and her time with Amos. What does this little girl learn on her way to the ocean, about herself, about the world and about her place in it. That's the story the audience is crying out. A kind of 'Journey of Natty Gann' set in the deep south.
The movie isn't helped by the acting with most of the cast wandering around as if they are in concrete overcoats, unable to express their feelings or desires with any range. There are some good cast members here: Lee, Diane Ladd and Graham Greene, but only Bernie Casey every really lets loose or shows any sign of real emotion. I'm not sure if Tonya didn't want to push her more-experienced actors, but ones wishes they'd have had more stage direction or were given the opportunity to cut loose once in a while, but the lack of emotion on-screen also adds to the leaden pacing. You just want the search party to be running and shouting as it searches for Lily. You want Lee/Thomas to be screaming at the world for taking away his son and now his grand daughter.... but he doesn't. It's not to say the actors are bad, they just come acrosss restrained. The few characters that do break out are the poachers and Amos Jackson, the tugboat captain. Both parties have moments when they shine, although these moments are too few and far between. We're loath to critisize Lily Holly, but she - or her director,writer,producer mum, Tonya Holly - can't escape blame. Lily just doesn't carry the movie as you need her to and you don't truely beleive in her character or her motiavtions. She doesn't have the vunerability that the role requires, or the sense of wonder of a youngster on the adventure of a lifetime. I can think of several other child actors, off the top of my head, who would worked for me better than Lily, A younger Mae Whitman, being one of them.
"But how is Lee?", we hear you ask. Well, he's okay and it's always great to see him on-screen, but it's another one of those perfromances we've seen where he turns up, reads his lines, and goes home. You're waiting for some spark, some glint behind the eyes, something to remind you that Steve Austin is lurking in there and that's why you're here. As we've said, Lee is no more, or no less, guilty of a bad performance than anyone else and there are a couple of moments when Lee is talking to Lily in the field near the movie's opening, or you get a close-up of him smiling at the end, when the real Lee shines through and you say "Yeah, that's the Lee we've been waiting for" and you see what've you been missing. Lee can be great, we know that, as in last year's 'Ben10', but this performance isn't in that league, he's never quite given enough to do, or enough dialogue to get stuck into, to bring him to the fore.
But despite everything, the movie isn't a total waste, there is some superb photography of river and forest scenery which holds the attention, the screen lights up whenever Bernie Casey is around and the general feel of the movie is warm one, and there are alot worst ways to spend 104 minutes. As a Hallmark movie it would certainly find it's target audience and we can see it playing well on cable channels, but otherwise there is not enough wonder and adventure to keep children interessted despite what should be a winning formula of a young girl, her dog, and her pet rabbit [can someone explain WHY the rabbit?], and the scripting and lack of real human drama means adult will be left wanting as well. As a first feature film, Tonya shows commitment and deternmination, but this isn;t the break through movie we'd hoped for.
The disc comes with the obligatory Trailer, a Sneak Peak: Animal Planet at the movies, plus a behind the scenes featurette. The 10 minute Sneak Peak is from an Animal Planet special on the show which aired a year-or-so ago and looks at the animal trainers on the film, giving an unique glimpse into the training and tricks of the trade to get the panther, actually a black leopard, to hit his mark. For anyone that missed it, this is an intersteing segment looking at the work of 'Paws for Effect'. The longest, and most insightful, extra is the behind the scenes featurette which is a essentially a 40 minute monologue by Tonya S Holly, inter-cut with on-set footage, as she discusses the highs and lows of bring a story so obviously close to her heart, to the screen. Tonya covers everything from finding financing for the film, to casting the individual actors ,to choosing locations. Tonya has obviously poured her heart and soul into the film, over coming obsticles that would halt other film makers in their tracks. Maybe the film isn't going win any Oscars, but this is no by-the-numbers Hollywood conveyor belt affair and shows the love and hard work is alive and well in the independant film making.
Review © Cyborg 2008
Images © Cypress Moon Productions 2008