Review: “Ride” (**½)

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Brenton Thwaites and Helen Hunt star in “Ride.”

Despite its earnestness, effort, and smooth cinematography, “Ride,” the sophomore effort from writer/director/star Helen Hunt, lands with a small and underwhelming splash. The film begins (and ends, really) with Helen Hunt’s character, Jackie, a shrill, iron-haired, nearly-unforgivable New Yorker; though, in all honesty, as the 90-minute feature slugs forward, Jackie becomes somewhat likeable… or if she doesn’t become likeable, she becomes, at the very least, sympathetic.

The film opens with Jackie reading restlessly outside of her then-young son’s bedroom door in the middle of the night. She pages more than reads, and every few seconds she freezes, listening intently and wildly for her son’s small sleeping sounds. Jackie only sleeps soundly herself once she knows he’s doing the same. She falls asleep, angular and uncomfortable, on the hardwood floor leaning up against his bedroom wall. Despite how this film twists and turns and flops and moves, it cannot be denied, however crazy she may show it, that Jackie loves her son, Angelo (played by Brenton Thwaites, an up-and-coming actor from Australia seen previously in “Oculus,” “Maleficent” and “The Giver”).

After that opening scene, we immediately flash-forward about 15 years. We are reintroduced to Angelo, a boy who grew into a pontificating, well-read, well-dressed, handsome young man with dimples that just won’t quit. Jackie, at this point, is everything you might imagine someone who grew up in New York and now edits fiction pieces for The New Yorker might be. And their relationship lies at the crux of this film: her desperation for his attention and his desperation for her approval. I expect some people might call that love, and in this film, certainly, that’s what it’s supposed to be. And their relationship is… well, it’s weird. She treats him more like a spouse than a son, and he, in turn, treats her basically like she’s Voldermort (“Harry Potter,” y’all), exemplified perfectly in the fact that he calls her Jackie instead of mom.

And though Angelo is easy on the eyes, I think he’s where the film falls flat. Instead of coming across as earnest, temperamental, emotional and hormonal, he’s stilted and trite and angry. He and Jackie are supposed to have this back-and-forth, this witty, pithy dynamic, something that might parallel with a lovely but competitive Sunday evening tennis match. I think it was probably written to be a back and forth that almost sings, where the words are all syrup and the delivery is smooth is as butter. But instead we get this raw-knuckled fist fight. With slightly better writing (always having the right line or the punch line isn’t realistic, and it’s certainly not interesting), much better delivery, and (maybe) different casting for Angelo, I think this could have been something really good (which is why I’m eager to see what Hunt does in future years). Their relationship, though, left me feeling unsettled; they’re just so cutting and mean, and it makes them both wildly unlikeable and watching them much less than fun.

The plot really takes flight when Angelo announces to Jackie (over the phone in pure cowardly fashion, I might add) that he will not be starting his freshman year at NYU in the fall, instead he’ll be staying in California with his dad, where he intends to surf and read and become a better writer and person and stuff. Well, Jackie can’t have that. So, out of pure motherly love, she secretly flies out to LA, employs a 24-hour driver (played by David Zayas of TV’s “Dexter”) and stalks her son for the better part of three days. And when they do meet, Jackie’s mean, she teases him about surfing and how easy it is, and he’s just as fiery and caustic. And for the remainder of the film, we have Jackie learning to surf, which is the perfect metaphor for this entire movie. She’s forced to give into the unpredictability of life, the unforgiving, sharp-toothed natured of it. She has to accept it and let it wash over her; she has to learn to ride the wave.

Sure, there a bunch of subplots and sub-subplots in “Ride,” but they’re so ancillary to this mother-son relationship that I don’t know if they’re wroth lingering over or dwelling on. Luke Wilson is in the film for a bit as a carefree surf instructor who not only teaches Jackie to surf but also teaches her to love (sort of). Warning, I’m about to spoil some stuff: at the end of the film, Jackie finally stands up on the surfboard. Angelo watches as she triumphs. And in this moment, in this single moment of the film, I loved “Ride.” I loved it because, in it’s heart of hearts, “Ride” remains pure-intentioned. It was a beautiful moment and beautifully shot, and Helen Hunt’s direction is generous and not at all self-indulgent, which can often be the case when one is self-directing. Though I didn’t love this film, I am excited to see what Helen Hunt will do in the future, because I do think that she’ll continue to grow and change and learn, and as a director, she has wells and wells of talent.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

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