**1/2 (out of 5)
July 4, 2014
Stephen Dorff as PAUL
Svetlana Metkina as TALLY
Andrew Roux as DIB
Peter Stormare as MALLICK
Maisie Williams as JOSIE
Studio: Phase 4 Films
Directed by: Evelyn Purcell
BY KEVIN CARR
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As someone who watches a lot of movies – more than 500 films each year – I have grown to appreciate the diversions as much as I love the big blockbusters. Even if a diversion isn’t going to top your list for the best films of the year, it can offer a different perspective and also help keep fresh the more mainstream fair that people mostly recognize as cinema.
In this sense, any moviegoer should take the opportunity to watch a couple of these smaller films from lesser-known studios that offer a different slate of releases. The ability to do this has expanded considerable since the 1980s when video stores gave viewers a chance to watch something other than was just at their local theater. Now, with video-on-demand options and the global DVD and Blu-ray marketplace, it’s possible to see some pretty interesting stuff and not just rely on the films that make hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Heatstroke” is a new film that offers something different but also has an impressive level of production value to it, with a few surprises. It’s a bit more rustic than what you might expect, but overall, it works as a thriller when it finally settles on what it’s trying to accomplish.
The movie follows a teacher named Paul (Steven Dorff) who is planning a research trip to Africa to study hyena behavior. Along for the ride is his research assistant and girlfriend Tally (Svetlana Metkina). Right before it’s time to leave, Paul gets a call from his ex-wife, telling him that their daughter Josie (Maisie Williams) has been busted for marijuana possession. To teach her a lesson, Josie is sent on the trip with Paul and Tally to keep an eye on her.
The research trip starts off well, even though Josie makes it very clear that she is not happy with the situation or with what she perceives as Tally trying to replace her mother. Paul is uncomfortable being the authority figure due to the common guilt and other feelings that divorced fathers can feel. However, things suddenly turn dangerous when the group encounters a band of poachers who threaten their lives.
“Heatstroke” is one of those films that starts off as something very different from what it turns out to be. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, as it has worked for many other films in the past. Plus, the opening sequence of “Heatstroke” plays to this thriller aspect before diving into the family drama.
While the characters can be irritating and problematic at times, they are not unrealistic. In general, I can quickly tire of the surly teenage girl in movies because it’s such a cliche, though they manage to not beat you over the head too much with this aspect of Josie’s character (which is more a result of the film switching to thriller mode about half-way through). Still, even though I don’t particularly like watching the surly teenage girl character, I can’t say it’s not something that never happens, because teenage girls can certainly be surly.
Similarly, the character of Paul is aloof and at times has very little backbone. This is unpleasant in a character but very typical of a divorced father whose hands-off parenting after his marriage results in him not being able to handle his own children.
Both of these things help make the film Tally’s movie, but she doesn’t emerge as the true lead until late in the second act. Her character is the most interesting, with a potentially interesting backstory and the most challenges to face with the blended traveling family. The change happens most in the character of Josie, but it as a direct result of Tally that it does, and that was satisfying.
The big stumbling blocks in this film result from characters making some pretty silly decisions in the light of real danger. Again, this may not be unrealistic but it did induce a couple eye rolls for me. Still, as a story of survival in a dangerous land with some characters making some bold decisions in order to persevere, it offers a nice diversion from the crowded multiplex.