Set in the 1970s and based on a true story, writer-director Shana Betz’s Free Ride suggests a dramatized Cops-style report of an underprivileged white woman immobilized by the American dream’s very fiction. Anna Paquin stars as Christina, an Ohio woman who moves down to Florida with her two girls, MJ (Liana Liberatto) and Shell (Ava Acres), in order to escape her abusive husband. She gets a job cleaning mansions, which turns out to be the first step to becoming part of a major drug-trade operation. She eventually gets to live in her own home and send her girls to a nice school, which of course is all too good to be true, and we spend the entire film waiting for things to go horribly wrong as Christina flirts with her fellow drug dealers (a big no-no in the biz) while MJ and Shell are left to their own devices. But things don’t go horribly wrong until the very end, and even then, they get quickly resolved before the audience is allowed to entertain the idea of irreparable loss.
Betz’s disinterest for the profound masquerades as a stylistic choice at times, and the directness of the film’s dialogue creates a few moments of acerbic simplicity. As when a bartender asks Christina what she’d like to drink, right after she finds out some of her drug-dealing friends have been killed, and she tells him drily, “Whiskey and water.” No pithy one-liner, no hysterical desperation. Just whiskey and water. Paquin’s believable performance keeps the all-too-neat narrative from completely surrendering to cheesy melodrama, and Betz’s script is refreshingly devoid of embellishment or poetic ambition. But the filmmaker’s too-insistent refusal to commit to the melodramatic or to the suspenseful only makes Free Ride seem like empty dramatization in the end. And when, in its very final moments, we learn that the filmmaker herself was part of the real-life saga and we briefly see images of the real Christina rummaging through old photographs, the loss of an opportunity for experimentation with form, à la Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, becomes too palpable to bear, dulling us into submission.