2019 Tribeca Film Festival: Cinema, and especially independent cinema, is permeated with the road trip movie. Stick a character or two in a car, especially if they’re mismatched, and set them off on an adventure where the drive itself will be more essential than where they end up. “Roads” is just the latest example of the quasi-genre. An indie dramedy caught between humor and seriousness, there’s a sense of this only being a rough draft of a fuller, better final product.
If “Roads” feels familiar, that’s because it is. Pulling from a slew of previous entries into the genre, the film never finds its own identity or rhythm. Additionally, the non-road trip elements feel more like retreads. British teens with troubled home lives? Check. African immigrants facing a tough road in Europe? Check. A journey more important than the destination? Infinite checks. There’s nothing wrong with any of these themes. We’ve seen them done before, and done well. Here, it’s all just a bit below where it needs to be in order to warrant a recommendation.
Teenager Gyllen (Fionn Whitehead) is on a holiday with his family when he gets the bright idea to steal their RV. Without a lot of thought, the excursion doesn’t go too well. It does, though, put him in contact with Congolese teen William (Stéphane Bak), who takes pity on him and provides some assistance. Soon a friendship is born, partly out of convenience, but also due to a shared longing for connection.
On the road, Gyllen and William are a mismatched pair, but their issues make them solid traveling mates. Gyllen is looking for his absentee father (Ben Chaplin) somewhere in France, while William is hoping to find his refugee older brother. In short order, it becomes clear audiences will be far more fulfilled by the bonding between them than by the results of their respective family searches. Gyllen is not above a bar fight and William is hoping to avoid the eyes of the authorities, so the mixture has potential for explosion. Separately, they both could be headed toward tragedy. Together, they might just find themselves on this trip.
Fionn Whitehead continues to show he’s a promising young actor. “Dunkirk” was just scratching the surface of his abilities. He leans into the conflict and hard edge within his character, though never in a way that prevents likability. Whitehead is a big reason why interest remains piqued in “Roads.” Stéphane Bak offers strong work here too, though his character is far more low-key than Whitehead’s. Together they’re at their best, so when they’re separated the film suffers. Ben Chaplin leads the unimpressive supporting cast.
By playing it down the middle, director/co-writer Sebastian Schipper limits the effectiveness of “Roads.” His screenplay, penned with Oliver Ziegenbalg, covers the sort of ground we’ve been over time and time again. That wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker had it been done with a distinctive style, but that’s not the case here. The light humor is somewhat half-hearted and the dramatic elements are never dug into deep enough to matter. Schipper tries to play both sides but ultimately can’t juggle the two tones. Languidly paced, you end up wishing more would happen one way or the other.
“Roads,” like the title itself, is mostly set on the open road and winds up with the inherent boredom that can come. Without strong visuals or a distinctive message, one is left with Whitehead’s performance and a feeling of a film so close to working. The negatives here are on the smaller side, but they build up enough to hold back enjoyment. Whitehead’s star is on the rise, but other than Tribeca attendees and eventual fans of the actor, few will end up taking this trip.