"Ultimately, Free Ride is trying to give us the send up that the lead character is doing what she can with what she has to simply survive and provide a sustainable life for her children."
Shana Betz's Free Ride is a simple, autobiographical little film that remains light and breezy despite its dark subject matter. It isn't until the end that writer-director Betz informs us that she is the youngest daughter of the film's lead character and reveals this story is one that puts her younger years in perspective for a limitless audience. The film stars Anna Paquin as Christina, a conflicted, young single mother in the 1970's who moves with her two children from Ohio to Florida after an abusive relationship. In order to make ends meet, Christina takes a job with a friend in the Florida drug trade, working for "bossman," and housing numerous brick packages of marijuana in the barn of her home.
Her children are fifteen-year-old MJ (Liana Liberato) and an even younger one named Shell (Ava Acres), who is likely around nine. MJ and Shell are kept mostly in the dark about their mom's dirty business, although MJ is old enough to sense imminent danger and wrongdoings on her mother's behalf. The film follows Christina's dirty work as well as showing her daughter MJ's sudden loss of innocence and entanglement in the business as well.
There is a powerhouse scene in Free Ride, one that will stick with me for quite a bit. The scene takes place at night and relatively early in the film, when MJ comes down stairs to find her mother high off whatever substance with several strange men, giggling and laughing carelessly. MJ is fearful for her safety, her sister's safety, and her mother's, and asks her mom if they're still going to the beach tomorrow as planned. She says yes and pushes her daughter to go back to bed and not be worried. However, how can MJ relax, seeing her mother high and at risk of being abused by several strange men? The scene is terrifying because it illustrates our greatest fears as children, seeing our protector's in harm's way. But what can we do accept try to chime in only to be told we're not old enough to understand and we should just go passively back to bed? Betz perfectly articulates helplessness and unsettled tension here.
Free Ride needed more scenes like that, but instead, gets sort of entangled in a web of oversimplification. While Christina's story is without a doubt significant, it's also kept well in the confines of a very shallow biopic. Scenes feel thrown together, there is little sense of a timeline, and what turned out to be years of dealing with dirty business is haplessly condensed into eighty-six minutes with lukewarm satisfaction and barely enough insight to write a summary about Christina's life. Because of this, Paquin is our silver-lining, giving us a female anti-hero with a clear motivation and list of goals but questionable decisions. Paquin worked wonders in Margaret, a lengthy but immersing drama centered around a woman facing the mental consequences after partially being involved in the death of an innocent man.
Here, Paquin is aided by the two young talents at hand along with a pleasant seventies atmosphere, aesthetically and through its production design, complete with classic beer cans, classic cars, and a bright and vibrant look that doesn't make the picture look like it was cut from a post-card.
While the film is easy-on-the-eyes visually, thanks to cinematographer Quyen Tran, and clearly a personal project for its writer-director, Betz struggles to give us an adequate timeline of events, so what we get seems like a greatest hits collection of her youth and her mother's involvement with the Florida drug ring without much of a clear point or time-period initiated. Even Betz's illustration of her older sister's acquaintance with the business seems tacked on as an after thought, and almost makes her mother out to be an unintentional enemy seeing as she doesn't seem to protect her young daughter well enough, leaving her to fall in the wrong hands.
Ultimately, Free Ride is trying to give us the send up that the lead character is doing what she can with what she has to simply survive and provide a sustainable life for her children. But because this foundation is laid on so thickly, we see Christina is in trouble long before she does, and we see MJ's risk before it even seems to dawn on her that she'll be involved in a pivotal way, and standing that far in front of a film for that long doesn't seem right. However, thanks to a great visual scheme mustered about by Tran, a strong central performance by Paquin, and the occasional scene that will muster up a solid emotional connection, Free Ride does earn its stripes in some commendable ways.
Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film CriticShare: