Lotawana opens and closes with a rippling watery surface that distorts the image of young Forrest (Todd Blubaugh) alone on his sailboat Lorelei. This literally reflective portrait captures – or fails to capture – our romantic hero in a liquid state, Protean and fugitive. Forrest has opted out of society, becoming the would-be captain of his own destiny, exposed to the winds and waves of self-imposed exile, “unanchored”, as he himself puts it in voiceover, “drifting in search of reality rather than luxury”. Forrest is a free spirit, seeking “life experiences” off grid and afloat, no longer feeling tethered to the consumerist, capitalist system that birthed him. Yet unlike the similar protagonist of Sean Penn’s Into The Wild (2007), Forrest has not wandered far. For even as he tries to insulate himself from the trappings of modern life, he is not bobbing out on the open sea, but rather on Jackson County’s Lake Lotawana, one of the smaller bodies of water in the otherwise landlocked American state of Missouri, where he is surrounded not just by the beauty of nature, but also by affluent lakefront homes. Despite his repeated assertions of independence, he often lands to get provisions, and even has a motorbike. Though he is estranged from his parents, it is implied that he still receives financial support from them – but his option to join his uncle at the San Juan Islands, and to help run fishing and whale-watching trips there, is more a distant dream than a goal that Forrest is in any way willing or even able actively to pursue. Forrest’s horizons are narrower than he imagines, and the enlightening reality that he seeks might turn out not to be quite what he is expecting.
When Forrest meets Antipodean traveler Everly (Nicola Collie), he thinks his world has been made complete. Everly shares his love for the water and for the life outdoors – but she is also quick to recognise the shortcomings of his plan to “barely get by,” the long-term impracticality of his limited worldview, and his general fecklessness. Not long after Everly has moved in with him on the boat, she will ask, “So how do you plan on taking care of me when we get older?” Forrest’s response – “We’ll figure it out” – becomes an increasingly empty refrain, as summer fades, as the boat has to be hauled ashore before the ice sets in over the lake, and as Everly falls pregnant. Forrest’s narration had warned from the outset that “a brutal, inescapable storm” was coming – and it finds expression in this couple’s tempestuous relationship, as they must desperately weather certain realities that in happier times they had managed to ignore. Soon they will be sneaking furtively into precisely the kinds of homes and lifestyles that they had previously rejected, and vicariously misappropriating a luxurious existence beyond their reach. If Forrest likes to live in ‘the right now’, his workshy philosophy in fact leaves little room for a viable future. A tragic ending seems inevitable.
Lotawana is the debut feature of Trevor Hawkins as writer and director (and DP and editor and colourist), but he came to the project with considerable experience as a long-term wildlife and adventure filmmaker (for National Geographic and the Outdoor Channel, among others), and this really shows. Here the cinematography is exquisite, revealing the natural world at its most beautiful so that we can see for ourselves its Siren-like allure for Forrest. There is also a real pace to the editing, often orchestrated in rhythmic montage to Ryan Pinkston’s original score, which makes even Forrest’s stasis seem to have a momentum. Filming where he lives (and financing the shoot with a loan against his own house), Hawkins translates his local knowledge into a close affinity with the landscapes of the lakes, and with the people living on its shores. Blubaugh and Collie, who met on the production, were literally falling in love as the shoot progressed (and were subsequently married), which lends a genuine, palpable chemistry to the on-screen dynamic between their characters.
Coming, as its very title implies, with a strong sense of place, Lotawana is propelled by contradictory tensions, presenting an idyll that becomes a trap, and a young man who regards himself as being in motion but is in fact going nowhere. As the economic pressures and demands of the world become overwhelming, the couple shifts from a mere critique of society to a more straightforwardly criminal form of antisocial behaviour, and their belief that property is theft crosses over to the theft of property in practice. Forrest and Everly’s idealised life of endless vacation will prove a mere floating dream, with the comfortable lakeside community that both repels and attracts them eventually, inevitably reimposing its rules. Hawkins is sympathetic with his characters and their unconventional outlook to the bittersweet end, without ever flinching from their flaws and foibles. Meanwhile, the lake itself, shown in all seasons, remains indifferent to the fates of those in transit on its surface, at the threshold where nature fleetingly laps up against culture.
strap: In Trevor Hawkins’ bittersweet laketop idyll, a free-spirited, off-grid young couple must navigate the harsh storms of reality.
© Anton Bitel