"The Retrieval" comes at you like a haunting slip of a memory, one that writer-director Chris Eska retrieves from a mostly forgotten era in unforgettable ways.
The film takes place in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation as the Civil War is grinding down and the human tragedy of slavery remains in flux. In Eska's spare cut at this complicated time, the filmmaker rests the moral issues of that transition to freedom on the slight shoulders of 13-year-old Will, a gangly youth with soulful eyes.
It is a coming-of-age story but very unlike what we've come to expect of the genre. Will (Ashton Sanders) is orphaned, free but in debt to a bounty hunter still making his money rounding up runaway slaves. Will's job is to lure unsuspecting runaways into the traps laid by Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.) and his men, morally fraught terrain to begin with.
Burrell's crew is rough. The closest thing Will has to an ally is another freeman, Marcus (Keston John). Marcus is older, more savvy about their situation, but his anger and his edge make for an uneasy partnership and not much of a role model for a fatherless boy.
The film hangs on one of Burrell's missions. Will and Marcus head into Northern territory to track down a freeman with a price on his head. If they bring Nate (Tishuan Scott) back to Burrell, their debts are settled. If not, they're as good as dead.
Shot around tiny Ottine, Texas, where the filmmaker grew up, the forest, fields and swampland that serve as backdrop for Will's journey look like the 1800s. That the place feels so untamed mirrors Will's sense of someone still becoming. What, of course, is the question.
Eska, with cinematographer Yasu Tanida, makes the most of a minuscule budget — letting the camera linger on the land, letting the tone shift as the characters move into frame. The actors are sharply defined in close-ups. At a distance, they are often in silhouette. It works to make "The Retrieval" both an intimate character study as it reminds that more sweeping themes are in play.
There is a lot of silence in the film, the words judiciously chosen and carefully delivered, as if the chaos and cacophony of the world has been dialed down so that we can absorb what is being said, sense the subtext. It is why you feel the change so sharply when Nate is found and Will begins spinning the fiction designed to get him to come with them.
The struggle for Will intensifies on the road back to Burrell's camp. Nate is a taciturn man but framed by all the important virtues. It's not long before he takes a paternal interest in Will, which makes the boy's deal with the devil more difficult.
The actors are excellent across the board, letting powerful emotions and moral quandaries rest just below the surface. But the film belongs to Scott and Sanders. The dynamic between a man who knows who he is and a 13-year-old still deciding comes alive in their exchanges.
Eska is very much still a work in progress himself, and his film is a work of rough edges and raw emotions. But the distance traveled between his first feature, a graceful story of an undocumented worker in 2007's "August Evening," and the emotional grit of "The Retrieval," is impressive. It makes the next journey, wherever it might lead, one worth looking forward too.
MPAA rating: R for some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes