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Review: Promising 'Toad Road' cuts short its potential

Review: Promising 'Toad Road' cuts short its potential
A still from "Toad Road." (Handout)

A junkie hipster spin on the unreliable-narrator conceit, "Toad Road" is based on an urban legend about a trail dubbed the Seven Gates of Hell behind a former mental institution in York, Pa. Think of it as the CliffsNotes version of Dante Alighieri's "Inferno."

The film starts out with sort of a Harmony Korine homage, in which unsupervised slouches drop acid, forage for magic mushrooms, wrestle each other to the ground and perform stupid human tricks that are unfit for print.

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When the up-to-no-good James (James Davidson) compares a bad acid trip to Toad Road, the place immediately strikes the readily corruptible Sara (Sara Anne Jones) as a must-see. As they proceed to scope out the urban legend for themselves, the film starts to recall David Lynch's disorienting enigmas. The revelation of the real-life death of Jones in the end-credits dedication only shrouds the film in more mystery.

The home-movie vérité style of the early scenes pays dividends when inexplicable occurrences suddenly take us by surprise. Writer-director Jason Banker — who cut his teeth as a documentary cinematographer — shows a very deft hand akin to fellow newcomer Sean Durkin's. But as with Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Toad Road" comes to a very abrupt end that makes it seem comparatively slight.

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'Toad Road'

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Playing: At Arena Cinema, Hollywood.

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