Jacquelyn Frohlich's directorial debut, Wayward, invites viewers on a captivating journey through the complex web of family relationships. This thought-provoking tale centers on a mother and daughter, Arlene and Cleo, whose lives take an unexpected turn when they embark on a road trip from Idaho to California. Although the film offers a promising premise, it doesn't reach its full potential, despite moments of brilliance.
The opening scene sets a somber tone, as we witness the palpable tension between Arlene and her pre-teen daughter, Cleo. Cleo remains locked in her own world, her headphones allowing her to escape the troubled atmosphere of their car. This first glimpse of their strained relationship raises questions about the underlying reasons for Cleo's resentment towards her mother. Their journey takes an intriguing turn when they meet Orbison, a radiant young woman hitchhiking with her guitar in hand. Arlene, anxious to bridge the emotional gap between herself and Cleo, invites Orbison to join them. This decision triggers a series of events that will challenge their dynamic.
Orbison's presence initially seems to offer hope of reconciliation between mother and daughter, as she engages Cleo in conversations about music and life, briefly piquing the teenager's interest. However, the viewer can't help but wonder about Orbison's true intentions. Is she really trying to repair this broken relationship, or is she taking advantage of Cleo's fascination with her to further her own interests?
The film's narrative takes an unexpected turn when we finally learn the reason why Arlene has decided to uproot their lives. This revelation introduces an element of suspense and uncertainty, leading us to speculate about Orbison's role in their drama.
One of the film's strengths lies in Jacquelyn Frohlich's ability to maintain a hold on her characters. Her camera captures the vulnerability of Cleo, a child accustomed to being uprooted and constantly adapting to her mother's changing love life. Cleo's attachment to Orbison as a mother figure is portrayed with real emotional depth, while Arlene remains trapped in her romantic pursuits, often neglecting her daughter's needs.
Frohlich's choice of narrative is bold, leading viewers to believe that Wayward could evolve into a suspense thriller, involving kidnappings and ransom demands. However, it pivots masterfully, revealing that the heart of the story lies in the experiences of a lonely, motherless child struggling to find a sense of belonging.
While Wayward has its moments of brilliance, it is not without its flaws. Some sequences seem too artificial and academic, which sometimes detracts from the film's overall impact. However, what really redeems the film is the remarkable chemistry between the two youngest actresses, Chloe Guidry and Jessica Sula, who bring authenticity to their roles and keep the audience captivated right up to the moving epilogue.
Director Frohlich's ambition is evident throughout Wayward. She manages to weave a complex tapestry of emotions and bonds of attachment. The film explores the gray areas of human connection rather than taking the easy, Manichean route. It leaves viewers wondering about the authenticity of the characters and their intentions.
Despite a few missteps and shifts in tone, Wayward is a promising start to Jacquelyn Frohlich's career. The film introduces intriguing but underdeveloped characters, leaving audiences curious about their backstories. It occasionally strays into different genres, and while this experimentation adds depth, it also creates moments of uncertainty in the film's overall tone.
Wayward is a captivating experience, even if it's not free of clumsiness. It's a film worth seeing for its depiction of the complex dynamic between mother and daughter, and for the promise it holds for Frohlich's future projects. Presented at the Deauville American Film Festival, Wayward offers a unique blend of emotions and genres that make for a stimulating cinematic journey.
Written and directed by Jacquelyn Frohlich
Produced by Lane Cheek, Ian Michaels, Matthew Toronto
Starring Jess Weixler, Chloe Guidry, Jessica Sula, Rob Morrow, Will Brittian, Colleen Camp
Music: Matthew Kajcienski
Director of photography: Ben Hardwicke
Editing : Ron Vignone
Running time: 99 minutes
Seen September 6 2023 at Deauville international center