Brightwood (2022)

Brightwood has its world première at Cine-Excess 2022

“Welcome to Divorce Survival Guide Podcast,” says the distorted voice that opens writer/director/cinematographer/editor Dane Elcar’s feature debut Brightwood, “where we have open and honest conversations about co-parenting, separation, divorce, and the hardest question of all: should you stay or should you go?”

 Jen (Dana Berger) is jogging along a suburban street, and while she might ostensibly be together with her husband Dan (Brightwood‘s producer Max Woertendyke), she is pushing forward while he is clearly lagging behind and impeding both their individual and collective progress. Communication is also impeded, not just by the ever-growing distance between them, but by the AirPods in Jen’s ears – and it is clear, given the podcast to which she is listening, that she has a more permanent separation on her mind. As this marriage enters its middle years, Dan is starting to exhibit all the signs of middle age: hair loss, excessive drinking, a wandering eye, snoring and smells – and Jen is beginning to feel only disgust for this man whom she once loved, and is contemplating leaving Dan behind altogether for a (maybe) better life without him. For now, though, she just wants to jog a little further, “to do the park trail, circle the pond” before heading back and facing the music. They are still on the move, but getting nowhere.

“I think there are a lot of different ways, and a lot of, um, different directions, this could go in,” Dan protests, “and I just want to say, we’ve been together a really long time.” Dan easily slips into the language of travel and direction – of shared and divided paths – to describe their rocky relationship, and sure enough, as they come to the pond and the autumnal woodland surrounding it, the reality of their lives is set to collide with an elaborate and extended metaphor. For this large, dirty lake, marked uninvitingly at one end by a rusty “No swimming” sign, represents the morass which their marriage, in its own autumn, is constantly skirting – and as they struggle over that question of staying together or parting forever, they find themselves caught in a twilight zone where the trail around the pond never ends, and has no exit. Like it or not, they are stuck here together at an impasse both environmental and emotional, and their growing disorientation and desperation become like the counselling sessions that they never had. “I can’t take it any more, we just keep walking around and around and around in circles,” a distraught Jen will eventually tell Dan. “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to die like this!” – and by now, it is no longer clear whether she is talking about the marriage or the supernatural space in which they have become trapped, as the vehicle and tenor of Brightwood‘s central metaphor become utterly confused.

Jen and Dan both are – and are not – alone on the trail. For there are other people whose parallel paths they occasionally traverse, all caught in the same looping circuit and the same hall of mirrors, as their criss-crossing trajectories afford each other distanced perspectives on themselves, outlets for envy and aggression, and even sources of nourishment. As these woods become a solipsistic universe for two(s), inescapable and barely accommodating, the couple must find a way to live with each other, maybe even to become the best version of themselves, even if that means endless expressions of violent self-loathing and self-destruction. Expanded from Elcar’s short film The Pond (2018), this two-hander recalls James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence (2013), Madellaine Paxson’s Blood Punch (2014), Richard Waters’ Bring Out The Fear (2021) and even Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-end (1967), as a couple’s failing, rut-stuck relationship is presented as several circles of hell in a low-key science-fiction scenario – and it jogs on to an ending that is all at once unexpectedly happy and horrifically bleak. Meanwhile Jason Cook’s unsettlingly glitchy score sets just the right tone of reverberating (marital) dysfunction.

strap: Dane Elcar’s feature debut turns autumnal scenes from a marriage into a twilight zone of entrapment and uneasy accommodation

© Anton Bitel