NOW ON VOD! Living off the grid goes off the rails in the powerful Manifest West, written and directed by Joe Dietsch and Louie Gibson. The thriller follows pre-teen Riley Hayes (Lexy Kolker) and her little sister Mary (Madison Friedman), who are yanked out of their neighborhood and whisked off into the woods. Their parents, Dave (Milo Gibson) and Alice (Annet Mahendru), are setting up home in an old cabin, far away from the noise and problems of the modern world.
They are not alone in wanting to get away from it all, as there are other “pioneers” trying to live off the fat of the land as well. Eric (Michael Cudlitz) and his wife Susie (Dionne Audain) teach them the ropes, including how to use guns as tools. The Davik family down the road also pitch in, with Steve (Tim Heidecker) having the needed equipment for a septic tank crisis. His daughter, Lana (Ava Kolker), is Riley’s age and is eager to get into typical mischief with smoking and drinking. Riley, however, creates her own Rambo-esque wonderland, making the best of life in the wild. However, problems the Hayes thought they left behind start appearing again. This gets the attention of the authorities, and soon Riley and Mary find themselves in a world much more dangerous than the wilderness.
Back in the mists of the late 20th century, there was this wonderful indie franchise called The Wilderness Family, featuring a family that escapes the rat race to live in the mountains in Alaska. They get their butts whipped by weather, bears, and disease, but their love and animal friends help them stand up against the elements and the federal government. They were swell pictures that didn’t skimp on hazards but showed how the ever-loving nuclear family unit can survive any peril. Manifest West takes a more realistic view that punctures the familial wilderness fantasy. It shows that the nuclear unit can be f****d by uncontrollable calamities from both outside and within.
“…Riley and Mary find themselves in a world much more dangerous than the wilderness.”
However, even though the invulnerability of the family myth is dashed, the strength of the core is elaborated. Even when doom is overwhelming, the family still provides a source of profound nurturing. Dietsch and Gibson make it to that magic realm in cinema where everything is simultaneously grim and inspiring. Think of it as the melancholy triumph of the great view you have when going off the edge of the cliff. By acknowledging the vulnerabilities that all families have as well as the consequences of bad decisions, they get to the root power of the nuclear unit, laying its strengths bare for examination.
This kind of drama is ripe for seasoned actors, and everyone is up to the task. Kolker carries Manifest West on her capable shoulders as she makes Riley relatable and admirable. Her performance allows us to get down in the dirt with her. Friedman, in her debut, makes it look like she’s been doing this for years. I could have sworn I had seen her elsewhere, but she is brand new and ready for more. Gibson pulls off the challenge of being sympathetic even when making mistakes.
Mahendru is incredible, showing once again why she is such a powerhouse. She was great on the show The Americans, and she puts in wonderful work here. I did not recognize Heidecker at all, even though I am a huge Tim and Eric fanatic. The fact that Heidecker completely disappears into his role is more proof of his range as a serious actor.
Also, Dietsch is one hell of a cinematographer. Not only does he milk the living s**t out of the forest scenery, but he also has snazzy set-ups that pop throughout the production. Manifest West is a drama that breaks through the mythology of the family picture to reach something much more primal. Pack up some provisions and start hiking to find it.