There is nothing more problematic than a college diploma. At least, that’s one of the messages I gathered from writer/director Jessica Ellis’s feature film debut, What Lies West, the tale of newly graduated Nicolette (Nicolette Kaye Ellis, presumably related to the filmmaker) who aspires to be an actor, but rather than audition in Los Angeles like her classmates, she decides she’ll work on her social media footprint and get an image in place before actually booking any jobs. In what I thought might be a female-driven version of The Graduate, Nicolette moves in with her parents again while she waits for her ex-boyfriend Alex (Jack Vincenty) to hook her up with an image coach.
While he’s dragging his heels, her parents find her a job babysitting/befriending 16-year-old Chloe (Chloe Moore), whose single mother Anne (Anna K Peterson) is suffocating her about everything from the food she eats to taking walks outside. She is in desperate need of friendship but seems resistant to Nicolette’s bubbly ways, especially when Chloe finds out the would-be actor is planning to make a name virtually, with no actual acting credits to her name. Although Chloe seems utterly uninterested in hanging out with her paid companion, she seems willing to allow Nicolette to accompany her on long nature trail walks through the backwoods of Sonoma County, Calif., where she lives. Chloe is clearly training for something but refuses to say what, and she panics any time Nicolette wants to take a day off.
The biggest issue I had with What Lies West is that it makes it difficult for us to enjoy the company of either Chloe or Nicolette as individuals. Chloe seems to dislike people in general and Nicolette’s vapid approach to becoming a celebrity by ignoring her years of acting training doesn’t exactly endear her to anyone either. That being said, when they finally do start spending time together, the two become greater than the sum of their parts. They are written not to have any chemistry or traits in common, but they bring something out in each other that is often awkward yet also a testament to the potential of female friendships, and while I wasn’t particularly invested in their final journey together, I did want to know where their newfound friendship lands once it’s completed.
And speaking of said journey: Chloe reveals that she wants to walk the more than 30 miles from her house to the Pacific Ocean while her mother is out of town for a yoga retreat for several days, just to prove to her mother (after the fact) that she can do it and nothing bad will happen along the way. Nicolette begrudgingly agrees, deciding that chronicling the walk will be a thing that distinguishes her on social media. There are a few small surprises in What Lies West that add some much-needed depth to the Anne character, and the journey seems to lessen the extremes of Chloe and Nicolette’s more obnoxious corners as well. There’s also a gross subplot involving the ex that I could have done without; the fact that it doesn’t really serve any purpose other than forwarding the plot doesn’t do anything to make its case for inclusion.
More than I grew to like these characters, I really was rooting for the relationship between Chloe and Nicolette to stay strong. They work so well together, with Nicolette becoming something of a mentor to appreciating people, while Chloe teaches the would-be actor to have more faith in her talent and abilities and not care so much about what other people think of her, online or IRL. I’m genuinely curious to see where the filmmaker goes from here. I think director Ellis could learn something from that. What Lies West feels like it was inspired by something personal but then rewritten to make it more entertaining. While there’s no crime in that, I’d love to see her get more personal and worry less about appeal. Tapping into genuine emotions would heighten any film’s appeal, in my book. I’m guessing audiences in the age range of the two leads will not only relate to the film and its messages but also find it inspiring.
The film is now available on VOD and DVD.
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