Stories reflect the time they are written. Due to COVID, the film industry has been disrupted in myriad ways, and the new releases coming out now are either ones that were pushed back because of the pandemic, or projects made through it. Even without specifically addressing it, the films in the latter category are clearly influenced by the circumstances. There’s M. Night Shyamalan’s Old which is about a group of isolated people being haunted by the passing of time, or the upcoming Language Lessons about a relationship played out entirely over video chat. Projects like this are impacted not only thematically by the situation, but also the practicalities of filming with social distancing requirements. Trent O’Donnell’s Ride the Eagle is another such film, with co-writer and star Jake Johnson saying he and O’Donnell wanted to make a movie about people coming together. The result is a bittersweet comedy about death, family, and making connections with people. It’s a small movie with a cast of only eight, and scenes that focus on quiet interactions or solitary moments. While a little uneven at times, it’s a story with a lot of heart, and some truly endearing performances by its intimate ensemble.
This is Australian Trent O’Donnell’s feature film debut having largely worked in television directing for some of the biggest sitcoms in recent years including The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and of course New Girl, where he met Jake Johnson, one of the breakout stars of that show. Johnson and O’Donnell wrote this script together which tells the story of Leif (Johnson), a man in his thirties whose estranged mother Honey (Susan Sarandon) passes away, after having abandoned him at age twelve to join a commune. Honey’s relationship with Leif has been strained at best, and after her death, she leaves him a video outlining his conditional inheritance: Leif is required to complete a series of tasks before coming into possession of his mother’s lakeside cabin.
The premise is simple, and the movie gets to it right away, efficiently establishing Leif’s unconventional adult life and complicated feelings about his mother. Grief is always complex, let alone when you hold anger and resentment for the person who has passed. Much of the film is left in Johnson’s hands as Leif navigates his way through his tasks, accompanied by his dog Nora. It’s a subtle but endearing performance, with much of Leif’s emotional turmoil left unsaid. He dutifully follows the list Honey has left, and it’s Johnson’s restless body language and nuanced characterisation that allows the audience to see the confused pain he feels. I was curious to know more about what Leif’s life was like after his mother left and how he has navigated adulthood, as this is largely left unexplored. The earnest script and Johnson’s portrayal, however, does enough to endear yourself to the character and root for him every step of the way, even as he makes questionable choices.
Johnson is perfectly supported by the rest of the ensemble cast. Sarandon only ever appears in grainy video, and a lot about Honey is left a mystery. Her performance gives humanity to a woman who could easily seem like nothing but a heartless oddball, and she’s clearly wrestling with the decisions she’s made now she’s at the end of her life. D’Arcy Carden plays Leif’s old flame Audrey, and while their conversations take place solely on the phone, their chemistry sizzles and Carden’s winning charm makes her scenes some of the highlights of the movie, and have a lightness and joy that help keep it all from becoming too heavy. Luis Fernandez-Gil as Gorka, Leif’s landlord, has a brief but scene-stealing role, and J.K. Simmons provides a gravitas and emotional grounding in his appearance. Filming during the pandemic does mean the scenes are kept small and some of the interactions are distant, but this doesn’t detract from the film. If anything, it highlights the detached nature of the relationships being depicted and serves the story well.
Leif’s relationship with his dog Nora is of the emotional cores of the film, and Johnson does wonderful, natural work with his companion. Animal lovers should be warned there are some distressing moments. Ride The Eagle is not about the pandemic, but it also is. How do you tell a story about relationships when people can’t be close together? Trent O’Donnell and Jake Johnson have chosen to focus on the power of the connections we make with each other, even when there’s distance or resentment, as all our connections shape who we become. It’s a movie that holds your hand, but does not spell everything out for you. While it would have been nice to learn more of what’s going on with these characters, this little snapshot of a sad, confusing, and life-altering time provides a window into what it means to be a person trying to figure out how they fit in relation to others. It’s a movie about second chances, and allowing ourselves to sit with our past and learn from it. It’s a movie about being honest about what we want and how we feel. There’s some delightful laughs, gut-wrenching moments, and an undeniable note of hope. It’s a movie that reflects our time, and one that is worthy of yours.
Ride the Eagle is in cinemas from September 9th