DIRECTED BY: Alex O Eaton
FEATURING: Natalia Dyer,
PLOT: Frankie takes her teenage daughter Clara to meet her ailing grandmother, a retired Hollywood actress, for the first time at her cabin in the mountains, where old resentments resurface.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite being pitched as a “surreal drama,” the only weird elements here are a single dream sequence and an incongruously ominous tone.
COMMENTS: A chamber drama shot almost entirely in the director’s family’s cabin, Mountain Rest‘s greatest strength lies in its trio of female leads, followed closely by the postcard-perfect shots of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Natalia Dyer (the main commercial draw, thanks to “Stranger Things”) plays granddaughter Clara. Dyer, incredibly, is already 21 years old; I would have pegged her character at 15 at the oldest. She takes advantage of her waifish look to portray a teen more convincingly than an actual teenager would; when her character nervously samples a glass of wine or tries for some ambiguous flirtation, the actress has the underlying awareness of someone who understands both the insecurity of late adolescence and the lurking perils of adulthood. TV vet Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under,” “American Horror Story”) gets the chance to give her take on a flamboyant Norma Desmond type past-her-prime starlet, and clearly relishes the opportunity. As the mother caught between these two women, Kate Lyn Sheil—who for a decade now has seemed like the hot young indie actress just about to break into the mainstream—has an almost thankless role, mainly reacting to the younger woman with concern and the older with simmering resentment, yet holds her own. It’s no surprise that the only male actor is upstaged by these three. His character is a bit ambiguous (is he a scheming gigolo, or just a faithful caretaker?), but his Carolina accent is a softspoken fail.
The scenario puts these four in a cabin for a couple of days; sparks threaten to fly, but nothing really ignites. A secret is revealed, but it has dull teeth. And, most frustratingly, Mountain Rest keeps threatening to venture into scary psychological thriller territory, then pulls back. The film suggests a sense of danger around Clara that never materializes. She meets the local teens and drinks beer/smokes pot, and soon thereafter is mysteriously hypnotized by a rushing mountain stream. Later, in the film’s only weird sequence, she will visit that location again, in a dream. One-shots show her apprehensive knitted brow and a string quartet broods ominously as she eavesdrops on conversations between her mother and the caretaker, or her grandmother and her dead husband. A minimal level of taboo sexual tension develops between her and Bascolm. Wrapped in a towel, she discovers a knothole in the bathroom door. She’s so tightly wound that she bites off the rim of a wine glass. But nothing ever develops from these hints; the noose stays slack.
Alex O Eaton (no “.” after the middle initial) assembles and directs a fantastic cast. The three actresses create a realistic, distrustful-yet-fond generational dynamic among each other, one that often plays out as more gripping than the dialogue directs. The cinematography is pro, the music well-chosen. And Eaton has a gift for creating miniature moments of subtle unease. But the story here stays too restrained; every time it threatens to move in a dangerous direction, it pulls back and goes for the obvious angle. The young director shows talent to craft individual scenes and shots that hint at deeper meaning and menace; I’d like to see what she could do if she lets herself go for broke.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: