AUTUMN ROAD is one of those frustrating watches where you can see the film that should have been, hiding in the shadows of the film that actually is. Writer-director Riley Cusick has a good eye and ear for the melancholy chill of a small-town Halloween, but he focuses too much on forcing drama and suspense that just don’t work. When the movie revels in small, forlorn moments, however, it captures the mournfulness of looking back on your childhood with the weight of the past bearing down on you.
Laura (Lorelei Linklater) hasn’t been home in a long time. Her sister Winnie (Maddy-Lea Hendrix) went missing as a child, and Laura hasn’t been close with her parents since the awful Halloween night that Winnie disappeared. When another tragedy befalls Laura as an adult, she feels the pull to return home, where she encounters Charlie and Vincent (Cusick in a double role), twin brothers who were Winnie’s childhood friends. The brothers know more about Winnie’s disappearance than Laura realizes, and tension grows between the brothers as Laura and Charlie bond.
Most of the film’s attempted scares center around Vincent, the “bad” twin with a troubling taste for violence. He has a tendency to tackle guests at the haunted house his family runs and attack people whom he believes have wronged him or his brother. Throughout most of the film, Vincent feels like an interloper from a completely different movie, a distraction from the much more compelling characters surrounding him. Laura’s strained relationships with her family, her hometown, and even her own memories are the intriguing story in AUTUMN ROAD, not Vincent’s acts of violence. Similarly, Charlie’s guilt and grief over losing Winnie make him a far more interesting use of Cusick’s talents, both as an actor and a writer. There is enough horror in this story of a young girl’s tragic disappearance, and the ways that her absence is felt in the lives of the people who loved her, that the addition of a more conventional horror plot feels unnecessary and unwelcome.
Low-budget films have a charm all their own, and AUTUMN ROAD is no exception. The writing and performances are inconsistent, but they occasionally hit that sweet spot between low-key naturalism and striking insight. One of Linklater’s best moments comes when Charlie begins to confess to Laura that he knows what happened to Winnie the night she disappeared. He is tentative, not wanting to spoil their newfound bond, and Laura says, “Well you can’t not tell me now…you have to tell me.” The pleading way she curls back inside herself as she delivers the second part of the line is mesmerizing. It’s a surprising acting choice; most people would likely deliver that line forcefully, demanding answers about the years-long mystery behind their missing sister, but Linklater does the opposite and finds the wounded grief at Laura’s core.
Cusick, along with cinematographer and editor Carson Bailie, finds similar moments of grace in his role as director. AUTUMN ROAD is most striking in its quiet imagery and gentle transitions. The opening shot of young Winnie smiling in her witch costume sets a chilly, elegiac tone immediately, while Vincent standing wordlessly over someone while wearing an eerie owl mask lends the film more menace than any line of dialogue or any physical violence he enacts. The transitions between the adults and the children (with Ranger Lerway and Jonas Lerway playing young Charlie and Vincent, respectively) perfectly convey the tragedy of growing up and growing away from the people and places you once loved. The boys stand with Winnie on a bridge, then look up to see Charlie and Laura walking along that same bridge as adults. Laura sits in Winnie’s old room and pulls the bedsheets over her head, only to see young Winnie huddled there with a flashlight excitedly discussing ideas for Halloween costumes. These are simple but elegant scenes that capture that ache you feel when you mourn times that are long gone.
AUTUMN ROAD works best when it is quiet and contemplative. Many of its biggest surprises come across as unintentionally funny, such as a shocking but also highly telegraphed death early on in the film and a moment when Vincent hits a snag in one of his violent plans. Most of the plot surrounding Vincent and a few other inexplicably violent characters makes little sense, causing the viewer to wonder why we didn’t get to spend more time with Laura and Charlie as they try to make sense of the hole Winnie left in their lives.
Though it can be frustrating to see AUTUMN ROAD circle around these compelling ideas and then veer off again to check in with Vincent and his psychopathy, there is an undeniable melancholy charm to the film, a haunted desperation that hangs over the characters and the town like fake cobwebs in mid-November, clearly and depressingly abandoned to the bushes and old houses they adorn. There is a much better film hiding inside this one, but it’s far too fascinated with the horror beats it wants to hit rather than the affecting character beats it achieves with occasional depth and beauty.
AUTUMN ROAD is now available in North America on a number of digital and cable platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Comcast, Dish and Shaw.