A cross-cultural romance set against the rural Armenian landscape, Braden King’s Here is also about navigating one’s place in the world, mapping the terrain around oneself both literally and psychically. We know this from the start because of an introductory sequence in which, over Brakhage-like abstractions, Peter Coyote narrates a quasi-mythical tale about two groups of explorers, the scientists and the dreamers, drawing their own maps of an unexplored territory. To be fair, setting aside these rather misguided interludes which pop up throughout the film, we also know this because of the perpetual uncertainty and yearning expressed by the two lead actors.
Ben Foster stars as Will Shepard, an American hired to map out remote corners of Armenia using advanced satellite technology, and likely, in the film’s perpetual way of suggesting intrigue by relatively subtle means, to do something more sinister as well. He’s paired with Gadarine Najarian (Lubna Azabal), an Armenian photographer returned home from a successful gallery show in Paris, who he keeps running into and who joins him on his cartographic journey.
The characters believably weave in and out of each other’s lives—first at random, and then, after a romance develops, as they search each other out after their numerous separations. Both actors are good at conveying the tentativeness of attraction and the inevitable, though always measured, acceptance of passion. Both also hint at something deeper in the characters: the sort of tightly wound tension beneath the anything-goes casualness that threatens to explode within Will, and the sadness in Gardarine that’s born, presumably, of feeling like an exile in her own country. But, while everything here is mostly unspoken, and the film itself hints at a broader set of concerns than simply two lost souls meeting on foreign ground, Here too often feels like a jumble of ideas that don’t quite cohere.
Scenes of quotidian Armenian life alternate, in often unwieldy fashion, with dangerous border crossings and the sketchy truth of Will’s cartographic project. Thematically, the Coyote-narrated sequences may keep things grounded, but, while they do relate to the story, they feel like too much of an attempt to impose top-down order on a narrative both too messy and not compelling enough in its sense of detail to repay the sense of intrigue that the film continually attempts to build. In one key sequence, Will relates a childhood memory of losing himself (physically, psychically) in the unknown territory of the grape fields his parents worked, as he pines for a moment when experience or terrain didn’t need to be mapped, when finding the edge of the world seemed a likelihood.
That’s the closest the characters come to expressing their disconnect from their present environment (and to be fair, outright statements of existential despair are rarely a successful strategy for good cinema), but it still feels like the film is doing too deliberate a job of withholding, while not giving us quite enough to connect to these characters and their situation. But at least for this one moment, as Foster intones wistfully and Azabal strokes his beard, the possibilities and dangers of a world without borders, open to the imagination impress themselves forcefully.