Review by Mark Schwab
May 14th, 2017
REFUGE represents some sort of rubicon for me as an independent film reviewer. It makes me wonder where the so-called "line" is between genuine encouragement and dishonest praise, helpful criticism and snarky take-downs. I'll plunge ahead here and see where it goes.
Writer/director/editor Theodore Gyi's movie attempts to weave a number of interconnected Los Angeles stories into a social commentary tapestry. Thread #1 is about an actress (Soraya Moore) attempting a comeback after a Lindsay Lohan-style meltdown, thread #2 is about a police officer (Alex Acosta) unhappy in his marriage, thread #3 has a high school art teacher (Sarah Rose Butler) about to be budgeted out of her job and thread #4 has a young refugee from Burma (Hser Kaw) trying to integrate into Los Angeles and escape his traumatic past.
These main threads are woven together as so: The actress and the police officer are childhood friends who are reconnecting and rekindling romantic sparks but he is currently married to the high school art teacher who is about to be laid off and who is also teaching the young refugee from Burma who is also being mentored in American culture by the famous actress as part of her community service requirement for her drug probation.
And that is literally only the half of it. There are also a couple of vicious bullies out to get the Burma kid, a megalomaniac film director making life miserable for the famous actress as she struggles to stay sober on a new film, the high school art teacher trying to believe in her own ability as an artist while trying to save her marriage to the cop and the flashbacks of the Burma kid's shady and violent past.
This is a lot for an audience to take in and process. In fact I'd say it's basically impossible to cover all of that ground in just about 84 minutes (excluding credits) of screen time. This results in almost all of those plots being dropped or tied up in a ridiculously contrived manner. Gyi is attempting (I think) to pull together something along the lines of Paul Haggis' CRASH where all of these plot lines make us look at ourselves and how we are treating our fellow Americans. This is a very noble pursuit and I respect the intentions of what REFUGE seeks to accomplish but I have been seeing this more and more lately from indie filmmakers - they try and cram so much into their films in an attempt to be ambitious that it ends up diluting the story beyond recognition. Plus, it seems as if the indie filmmakers feel an obligation to include everyone since they probably donated their time for free and they'd feel bad cutting out their storyline.
In regards to REFUGE, the storyline of the high school art teacher trying to help her Burmese student come back from the brink of a war-torn country works the best here by far. Sarah Rose Butler is passionate as the dedicated teacher and creates a genuinely moving rapport on screen with Hser Kaw who also is well-cast bringing an authentic and appropriate "non-actor" presence to his role. I wish I could have watched a whole movie just on that dynamic. There is certainly more than enough material to explore on that subject with both of those characters.
Unfortunately the rest of the film's many plot lines and characters do not fare nearly as well. Only Soraya Moore as the rehab actress seems perfectly at home in her part and does a good job in bringing some nuance to an otherwise stereotypical character. The rest of the cast is either way over the top (the vicious bullies are one-note hysterics in their anger and the megalomaniac film director is pure scenery-chewing cliche) or just empty and lost (the policeman brings no chemistry or emotion to his interactions and other supporting characters come off on-screen as friends of the production instead of cast actors).
Look...I know it is hard to put a feature film together. In fact it's really hard. Anytime a true indie feature (like REFUGE) gets finished I genuinely do celebrate it. In doing some research, I found out that this film has had a lot of heart and work put into it over multiple years' time. And it does show - the film looks wonderful from a cinematography standpoint with solid composition and excellent locations. Care and compassion and teamwork and sticking with it....it's all here and I really admire that. Those facts alone should warrant a viewing.
REFUGE is a very ambitious film that can't corral all of its plot threads, shows the troubles with making a movie over many many months and suffers from too many weak performances. But that doesn't mean one shouldn't take a look at it. Effort and perseverance in true indie filmmaking do count for something even if the execution falls short.
Use any of the links below to watch/purchase REFUGE:
Amazon - http://amzn.to/2qXcXgX
iTunes (USA) - http://apple.co/2qVtZuR
iTunes (Canada) - http://apple.co/2puOtdr
Google Play - http://bit.ly/2qXOdVR
Microsoft/Xbox - http://bit.ly/2pZJkxg
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