Refuge flatly invokes the classic fantasy of a sensitive stud drifter who blows into a small town and reminds a bored housewife that the pleasures of sex and stable domestic courtliness needn’t be mutually exclusive. It’s an appealing daydream, because, like all sexual fantasies, it elides the work that’s actually involved in achieving emotional or physical gratification for yourself or others. The problem with Refuge isn’t the contrivance of its premise, it’s that writer-director Jessica Goldberg doesn’t know it’s contrived, and so she attempts to drain this fantasy of its escapist elements so as to theoretically concentrate on its tangibly fearful, world-weary quotidian dimensions. But she doesn’t find any, and so you’re left with a film that’s almost literally meaningless.
Amy (Krysten Ritter) is a college drop-out who’s raising her siblings in the aftermath of their parents’ inexplicable disappearance. Her brother, Nat (Logan Huffman), is of legal age, but he has considerable complications that have arisen from a brain tumor. Amy’s sister, Lucy (Madeleine Martin), is a high school student weathering the usual problems of truancy, light drug use, and, much more alarmingly, of self-inflicted physical abuse. Amy loves her siblings, but understandably feels trapped, and takes to medicating that hopelessness by getting sauced at the local watering hole and taking home whichever guy shoots her the most promising looks—a cry for help that eventually leads her to Sam (Brian Geraghty), a hunk with great abs and that perfectly disheveled mixture of movie-star hair and three-day facial stubble.
The film’s one modern touch is a miscalculation. Sam isn’t idealized as the great white knight you’re primed to expect, as he’s an unemployed wanderer with family issues who’s even more screwed up than Amy and her clan. We can’t involve ourselves in Amy and Sam’s courtship because it’s abundantly clear that Amy’s settling, and it’s debatable whether or not Goldberg knows that. Ritter’s eccentric force as an actor keeps the film afloat; she has an acute and subtle sense of Amy’s stifled creativity. But Geraghty isn’t able to invest the dim-bulb Sam with any comparable stature (it doesn’t strike us as unreasonable when Nat lashes out and calls him a bum). At times, malevolence is suggested to be lurking underneath Sam’s infuriatingly dull, mumbling passivity, but that never comes into focus.
For a low-budget American film that defines its characters by their poverty, Refuge is unusually attractive; it’s cast in earthy hues that add a bit of much-needed verisimilitude and poetry to the little-orphan-Amy fantasy. But there’s nothing at stake, as the characters have given up on themselves before the film has begun, and all that remains is a fatalist reconfiguration, of a party of the damned, that mostly appears to be beside the point.