What is there to do in the summer holidays if you have a protective mother and a superficial babysitter? Arguably not a first choice for the average teenage girl, but sometimes the best remedy is a naturalistic hike across the state. This is exactly the case for unlikely friends Chloe (Chloe Moore) and Nicolette (Nicolette Kaye Ellis) who spend their summer planning a forbidden trip to the coast, with only the use of a map and an explorer’s mentality. Set in the California suburbs, What Lies West follows the clashing and building of a strong bond between the introverted teenager and the superficial graduate. Though the piece echoes glimpses of platonic connection, it fails to achieve much more than this, including a consistent engagement with the narrative.

Chloe is far from a sheep in terms of the average teenage trends. She doesn’t wanna spend summer by the pool, going to parties, kissing boys. She would rather sit in her room and do her “summer homework,” not even leaving her room to eat dinner. Her mother (Anna Peterson), a protective and overwhelmed woman, is on the hunt for a new babysitter to stay with Chloe all day when she discovers that Nicolette is looking for a summer job. It’s an interesting pairing for a summer adventure, the bond as the film’s core developing at a rocky pace. The piece in general seems to find a while to find its footing in terms of tone, and has a tendency to linger on certain scenes that do not feel necessary at all.

The girls bond over the temporal absence of male affection, Chloe with the absence of her father over the summer and Nicolette with her complicated relationship with Alex (Jack Vincenty), a married man who offers her useful contacts from industry professionals. The latter dynamic is an interesting knot in which to untie, yet its presentation is complicated as the power play fails to have a resounding impact on Nicolette and the wider story.

Nicolette, at first, is a relatable graduate, trying to secure work for the summer and to pay fees such as hiring an agent for her acting career, but her behaviour and attitude simply make for a painful watch. Her speech is outdated – after first meeting Chloe she exclaims to her parents, “she must be autistic or OCD!” – and her values are insanely shallow. Chloe has a tendency to call her out on her behaviour, yet the construction of Nicolette’s character merely comes across as careless. Not that sympathy is necessary when watching films, but it cannot be overstated how effective it can be when attempting to get the audience to become intrigued by your characters, and the lack of redeeming qualities Nicolette has, makes her time onscreen uncomfortable to watch.

What may set off to be a story of character development simply falls flat and becomes misconstrued. Other than knowing that Nicolette wants to become an actress and will do anything, will pretend to be anything in order to make that a reality, there is very little else to her. Without her satirical airhead character (who has a very minor redemption arc) there is nothing else for the audience to grasp onto. When did this presentation of femininity begin to mean a lack of substance?

With Nicolette’s character, What Lies West attempts a commentary at the superficiality of modern American youth and their fixation on looks and how they present themselves, or rather, the unnecessary pressure placed upon young women to always be looking their best. It cannot go without saying that there is also a great level of representation of different sized bodies on screen, especially vital and refreshing in a coming of age film (also similarly celebrated in Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade). One of the most striking matters (and unfortunately rare) is being able to observe Chloe as a real teenager who enjoys the outdoors. Rather than putting emphasis on makeup, fancy clothes or hairdos, you can appreciate her passion for adventure and individuality.

Their joint rejection of the controlling people in their lives is celebratory, and is arguably the only poetic thing about the film. Nicolette’s shortcomings, though somewhat redeemed, often come across as entitled and insensitive, which, depending on how you respond to her, may take you out of this story of escapism. What Lies West almost plays like a forbidden teen road trip film, yet there is a lack of fulfillment near the film’s final moments, cutting the film’s potential message short. Were the stakes not high enough? Either way, if you’re looking for an engaging adventure film, you may want to sit this one out.

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What Lies West is available now on VOD and DVD.

Interview with Writer-Director Jessica Ellis