Title: Sweet Little Lies
Director: William J. Saunders
Starring: Bill Sage, Caitlin Kinnunen, Joseph Montes, Jesse Lenat, Pedro Pascal, Natasha Williams
A West Coast premiere as part of the unfolding 14th annual Dances With Films festival, ‘Sweet Little Lies’ is a nicely photographed misfits’ road movie in which a kid and adult both experience some unlikely maturation.
Bess (Caitlin Kinnunen) is a rebellious trailer park teenager who’s just lost her mother. With only a faded photograph, old address and the story that her estranged father might be working in Las Vegas as an Elvis impersonator, she corrals her younger friend Waldo (Joseph Montes), and alights from Kansas, setting off for points west in the stolen car of Waldo’s half-brother, Paulino (Pedro Pascal). With little money, their quest is soon foundering, but fate brings the pair together with Roach (Bill Sage), a rakish conman who’s just nabbed the wedding ring off his mother’s hand at her funeral.
The trio doesn’t immediately hit it off, and Roach doesn’t seem the paternal or avuncular type anyway. But they eventually reconnect in Las Vegas, where Roach saves Bess and Waldo from Randy (Jesse Lenat), a street singer out to exploit them. With Paulino and social worker Jennifer (Natasha Williams) in pursuit, both Bess and Roach try to bring some order to their upturned lives.
Writer James Windeler’s script was several years ago a semifinalist in the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship contest, overseen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and it’s easy to see why. There’s a certain sweetness and innocence that emanates forth from the movie, embodied in a collection of imaginary wire figures with which Waldo plays (captured in animated form by Duncan Raitt), but also the slapdash manner in which Bess and Waldo escape various jams. While these obstacles flow sensibly and realistically from the actual narrative, there’s no real sense of danger here. This isn’t so much a damning criticism as just a factual assessment of tone.
‘Sweet Little Lies’ is wide-eyed and open-hearted; it takes place in a world walled off from cynicism, complexity and fear, in which simple, direct courses of action (be it Bess’ quest to find her dad or Roach’s attempt to procure an engagement ring for his long-suffering girlfriend) are viewed as being able to solve all problems. The audience may know beforehand these things not to be true, but the characters themselves do not. They are naive, but honest and forthright in their yearnings and intentions.
Director Saunders (the son of NFL coach Al Saunders) and cinematographer Edward Blythe do a good job of working with available light, and capturing some nice evocative images, as with a desert campfire reflected in the wheel rims of Bess and Waldo’s stolen red car. While many road movies incorporate the outdoors in only perfunctory fashion, the open road and dusty southwest seem a real, believably interwoven part of ‘Sweet Little Lies’.
On the flipside, the movie’s staging and editing during moments of panicked getaway and action is far less convincing. The film is best when it stays away from air-quote thrills and hijinks, and just sticks to a more straightforward narrative, with the kids siphoning gas or otherwise devising schemes to help put them one step closer to their goals. In the end, there aren’t really any big answers in ‘Sweet Little Lies’, and its ending stretches credibility in the name of peachy-keen, all-is-well settledness. Still, life is an open road, and the lies this sweet-natured indie film tells say much about the gulf between adulthood and the youthful innocence we tend to leave behind.
Written by: Brent Simon