Burdened souls retreating to the wilderness in an effort to escape their grief or remorse has become fairly familiar in the world of movies. Yet it’s a trope that I always gravitate to. Aside from the obvious symbolism, there’s just something about the way these movies deal with the human condition that has always moved me (to varying degrees, of course).
The latest film to plant itself in this well-plowed ground is the new thriller “The Girl on the Mountain”. It’s written and directed by Matt Sconce and taken from a story he conceived with Christopher Mejia. It delves into heavier themes of guilt, grief, loneliness, and trauma. Meanwhile gorgeous shots of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains soak into the background like paint on a Bob Ross canvas. Unfortunately the genre elements end up clashing with the deeper human moments despite Sconce’s efforts to keep our emotions in tune with what matters most.
Daniel O’Reilly plays Jack Ward, a former classical music conductor haunted by a crushing family trauma. Overtaken by sorrow and guilt, Jack has escaped deep into the mountains where he lives out of a pup tent and fights off daily impulses to end his life. As movies like this tend to do, we get flashbacks that fill us in on what drove Jack to such a troubling condition. Sconce means well and the early allusions to Ward’s past are handled well. But the later flashbacks get a little too on-the-nose.
While washing up in a mountain stream Jack is surprised by a young mute girl (Makenzie Sconce) who grabs his backpack and quickly runs away. After a short chase he catches the girl – holes in her clothes, lips chapped, dirt smeared across her face. Conveniently, Jack knows sign language so he learns the girl is on the run from a comically over-the-top antagonist Big Al (D.T. Carney). As you can probably guess, an inevitable bond forms between the tortured Jack and the traumatized young girl. But Big Al and his redneck goons are determined to find the girl, no matter what it takes.
The movie starts off on a pretty strong foot as it emphasizes Jack’s anguish and grounds us in his seclusion. The way Sconce shoots the scenic locations is nothing short of stunning, and the early scenes allow O’Reilly the space to convey his character’s pain and loose grip on life. And the first moments between Jack and the girl are effective in showing their shared fear and trepidation while also touching on our more human instincts of survival and companionship.
Sadly the film can’t stay on course as the script really struggles after the table-setting first act. It’s not just the story that suffers, but the characters too. While sweet on the surface and well intended, Jack’s sudden transformation from downcast and hopeless to chipper and playful is so abrupt that it doesn’t feel natural at all. And the dialogue during these scenes doesn’t exactly help. Their back-and-forths get pretty mushy and (I hate to say it) hokey to the point of cringe. It’s unfortunate.
Even worse, things really fall off once Sconce tries to rev up the action in the final 15 minutes or so. The framing of the shots, the weird use of slow-motion, the jarring way it clashes with the rest of the movie. Nothing about the the “big” ending feels authentic, and it seems copy and pasted from other thrillers. Without question, the budget has something to do with it, and you hate to knock a small indie like this that actually does several things well. But ultimately the movie can’t quite overcome its issues, and it can never get back on track once it loses its footing. “The Girl on the Mountain” is now streaming on VOD.