Starring: Aly Michalka, Dustin Milligan, Todd Lowe
Directed by: Andy Landen (debut)
Written by: Andrew Rothschild (debut)
When Riley (Aly Michalka), a brash young woman from a broken home, is diagnosed with stage 3 oral cancer, she decides to forego chemotherapy and the indignity of having surgery to remove her jaw and instead chooses to end her life on her own terms: swallowing a cocktail of pills and slipping away peacefully amid the majesty of Sequoia National Park.
Riley’s carefully orchestrated plans begin to go awry when she crosses paths with Ogden (Dustin Milligan), a kind-hearted would-be musician/missionary. Just as attraction sparks between them, Riley burdens Ogden with the helping her carry out her suicidal agenda. Meanwhile, Riley’s sister (Sophie Bairley), having known of Riley’s plans to kill herself, spills the beans to their father (Todd Lowe), mother (Joey Lauren Adams), and mother’s boyfriend (Demetri Martin), sending them all off a mad dash to save Riley’s life.
Riley’s arc exists almost entirely independent of the rest of her family, giving “Sequoia” the feeling of two movies going on parallel to one another instead of part of the same narrative. Riley’s and Ogden’s journey is melancholy and heartfelt, the frame filled with the natural beauty of Sequioa National Park. On the other hand, the scenes of Riley’s family coming to her rescue feel as though they’ve been stretched too far with too little story. The script attempts to draw out the 3 and a half hour journey from Los Angeles to Sequoia to an overnight road trip by throwing in a confusing detour for Demetri Martin’s (the only cast member who feels out of place) character just so Riley and Ogden have a realistic amount of time for their relationship to blossom.
Faults aside, “Sequoia” is a wonderful dramatic showcase for Michalka, previously known for Disney Channel fare and supporting roles in comedies like “Easy A.” And Milligan shines in a role that would be easy for those godless liberal monsters in Hollywood to mock: a young, white Christian male. Their relationship, while likely doomed no matter if Riley’s suicide attempt is successful, feels as authentic and beautiful as the park the film shares its name with.
“Sequoia” premiered at SXSW 2014.
For more coverage of SXSW 2014, click here.