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(Check out M.J. O’Toole’s Gasoline Rainbow movie review. The film is in select theaters now before hitting Mubi on May 31. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

While many Americans worry about the future, five teens from small-town Oregon are living for the moment. In Gasoline Rainbow, filmmaking brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross assemble a cast of non-actors, presenting them with daily spontaneous scenarios as their on-screen versions journey to the Pacific Ocean in the search of an epic party at the end of the world. Similar to their previous picture Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the brothers combine narrative and documentary techniques to capture the lives of modern Americans trying to get by despite societal constraints. In Gasoline Rainbow they hit the road with these kids into the beautiful unknown, and the result is eloquent and enlightening, offering a raw look at being young, free, and directionless in what may be this generation’s Easy Rider.

Introduced by way of their high school ID cards, Oregon teens Micah Bunch, Nathaly Garcia, Nichole Dukes, Tony Aburto, and Makai Garcia are unsure which path to take post-graduation. Instead of making any serious plans, they decide on a whim to get into a white van and drive 500 miles towards the Pacific Ocean, away from their podunk town – only packing the necessities: some clothes, beer, and weed. There’s a sense that no matter how far they travel, they may never break free of their harsher realities back home. It’s almost as if this trip is all they have. They soon encounter various people living on society’s margins along the open road, attending impromptu concerts and skate parks in Portland and hopping a freight train when the van can no longer transport them. Through these adventures and encounters, the Ross brothers make you question the term “documentary” and how it applies to this particular film. The dialogue is natural and unscripted, but if one considers the way certain shots are framed, it’s clear that the filmmakers are guiding a narrative trajectory. 

Many of the encounters with strangers on the road are delightful and wholesome. These teens may not fit in with the popular kids at school, but they effortlessly charm most of the people they meet on the road. Such encounters include a friendly drifter, a pair of pierced and tattooed vagabonds, and a veteran of the punk scene who plays The Lord of the Rings score while cooking breakfast. It is through the bonds these teens make on the road that we begin to slowly understand them more as individuals, and that gives the film its heart. Nathaly opens up at one point about the pain of losing a family member to deportation, and Micah confides in an older host about his complicated relationship with his addict parents and his fear of living in their shadow. Each of these strangers gives them an open ear and a shoulder to cry on. “You gotta find your own way,” another character says compassionately late in the film – if a little on the nose. The casual speech and relaxed demeanor, even in the most vulnerable moments, are so earnestly real. These moments generate a sense of hope with the possibility that there may be more for them ahead in life than what they believe is waiting for them back home.

The brothers, whose past films such as the New Orleans-set Tchipitoulas I have admired greatly, have made something that feels more like an embrace than a raucous banger. From the dusty roads, to the open deserts, to the clear coastal waters, these teens are making every moment count. By giving their ensemble of non-actors the freedom to be themselves around one another through improvisation, the Ross brothers are able to give their film a genuine aesthetic, even if some of the situations are manufactured. By the film’s end, you’ll feel like you’ve looked back on a warm memory. 

– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)

Mubi; Ross Brothers; Gasoline Rainbow movie review

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