After a brief introduction, Exodus Fall flashes back to give us 20 minutes of domestic horror, perpetrated by the latest incarnation of the Horrible Mother. In the recent tradition of Mo’nique and Melissa Leo’s Oscar-winning turns as matriarchs from hell, Rosanna Arquette offers up Marilyn Minor, a brutalizing, alcoholic widow, who never speaks to her three children, expressing herself only in ear-turning screams and hard slaps to the face; who confiscates the children’s letters from their benevolent grandmother; and who, worst of all, places her autistic kid, Dana (Devon Graye), in a prison-like “home” while allowing doctors full rights to perform “scientific experiments” on her offspring.
Arquette’s is necessarily a one-note performance, its role simply to establish the hellish situation from which the children decide to flee. Still these early scenes are so overheated and so little interested in building to any of their alleged emotional climaxes, that its knee-deep leap into hysterics seems like a desperate gambit, operating under the misassumption that simply because these newly introduced characters are exhibiting extreme emotions, we should be feeling them too. But the flipside of easy brutality is cheap sentiment, and after subjecting us to two reels of Arquette’s embarrassing routine, directors Ankush Kohli and Chad Waterhouse devote the rest of their film’s running time to a nonstop infusion of manufactured good vibes.
Fleeing their Texas home, eldest child Kenneth (Jesse James) and younger sister Charlotte (Adrien Finkel) rescue Dana from the asylum, faking out what have to be the stupidest loony bin guards in cinematic history, and head out on the open road. Their destination is their grandmother’s house in Oregon, a journey of exactly 1362 miles in which they’ll be joined by a beatific hippie, Travis (Alexander Carroll), who promises that “lots of beautiful things will happen along the way,” as well as a few hardships. And so they do—only the “beauty” far outweighs any adversity.
The film is set in 1974, a strategy apparently designed to make the gushing feel-good rhetoric less laughable, though not a whit less trite, and to allow the introduction, for no apparent reason, of a Vietnam subplot. In the film’s sentimental lowlight, Kenneth and Charlotte travel to Utah so Travis can deliver the dying letter of a fellow ’Nam grunt to his family. Our vet tearfully intones his buddy’s words for the benefit of the deceased’s blind mother in a scene that seems to come out of nowhere and tells us little about either Vietnam or humanity at large except that bad filmmakers frequently bank on people’s alleged appetites for the basest forms of sentimentality.
But even setting this scene aside, this is one journey that we know is beautiful because the characters—along with the picture-postcard landscapes—keep insisting on it. A collation of pseudo-profound dialogue and cameos by compassionate strangers, Exodus Fall is a road movie in which, once out of Texas, nothing bad can ever happen to our children. Presided over by the spirit of the kids’ beloved deceased father (who provides a literal deus ex machina at the trip’s lowest point), shaped by the optimistic platitudes of Travis (who’s been in Vietnam so you know his words are earned), and positing young Dana as an angel of innocence whose obsessive immersion in moments of beauty to the exclusion of all else is depicted as something like the ideal attitude toward life, Kohli and Waterhouse’s film is a relentlessly optimistic, reality-denying fraud. Once the trio escapes the clutches of Arquette’s holy terror, no engine failure or small-town cops are going to stop them, not because of their determination or newfound maturity, but because of the authorial imposition of a stupidly benevolent view of humanity that pays lip service to hardships only to posit a magical universe of unquestioned good.