2½ stars (out of four)
A faded romance between two ex-lovers and the shocking deterioration of our environment are the two main threads of writer-director Leslie McCleave's "Road" -- a road movie with heart that opens this Friday at Facets Cinematheque.
The ex-lovers are Margaret (Catherine Kellner) and Jay (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who've rejoined for a car journey through a series of toxic government waste sites that Margaret is photographing on assignment. And the trip starts badly. The tape deck in Margaret's car isn't working, which means that Jay's elaborate music program, including Led Zeppelin, can't be played. (On the other hand, it means that we get to hear more of Chris Brokaw's excellent original film score.)
Things get worse. The two drive through increasingly awful-looking sites and meet the strange people, including a hapless park ranger played by James Urbaniak (of Hal Hartley's film "Henry Fool"), who inhabit this grim landscape. Love and politics join hands and reach a chastening resolution.
McCleave's film, which won major prizes for the two lead performances and Brokaw's score at the Los Angeles and Brooklyn film festivals, isn't completely satisfying. It's a bit preachy and cryptic, and it sometimes telegraphs its punches and messages. It lacks the counter-balancing humor that would help us ignore other flaws.
But it's a good-looking film, beautifully shot by cinematographer Antoine Vivas-Denisov. The mood and vision strongly recall one of the great periods of American movies: the '70s socially conscious road picture ("Easy Rider," "The Rain People," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "Scarecrow"). This film pales beside those, but McCleave, making her feature debut, shows skill and emotion. Her heart is definitely in the right place.
Writer-director McCleave and composer-guitarist Brokaw will speak to audiences in Facets Cinechats at the 7 and 9 p.m. Friday screenings. Running time: 1:32.