Trona - LA Film Festival

Dilapidated old buildings in run down towns, a man wandering the desert in his underwear and a couple chugging bottles of Robitussin are just a few of the strange hallmarks of 'Trona.' A work of big ideas, sprawling heat-soaked vistas and narrative gaps as wide as the desert plains over which it unfolds, David Fenster's film school thesis turned feature debut is an existentialist surrealist journey that takes minimalism to new levels in its exploration of loneliness, disillusionment and the drab weight of being stuck in a rut.

The Man (David Nordstrom) finds himself stranded in the desert with nothing but his underwear.

Fenster gets through the setup early on, deftly capturing the frustration and ennui of his nameless man's stasis with a few quick scenes in an anonymous hotel. His wife's nagging about his drinking during a strained phone conversation with has the feel of a habitual argument repeated ad nauseam, while sounds of the more amorous couple next door filter through the wall.   
Instead of using the same tired devices of binging in the big city, Fenster pulls the Man (David Nordstrom) out of the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life and sets him into the abstract barrenness of the desert. One moment he's on a plane looking at the desert below, the next he's inexplicably there, standing in the blazing heat in the middle of nowhere.

It's the type of place one can get lost in, and that seems precisely the plan. Stripped literally to his underwear in the middle of nowhere, he's walked away from his old life and into a sort of transitional purgatory while he tries to reconstruct his existence finding clothes, food, shelter and work into something less stifling.

Finding solace in the middle of a junkyard.

Fenster has a natural confidence behind the camera that belies his somewhat limited experience. The desolate desert landscapes are beautifully framed, and combined with the forgotten buildings lining the lonely highway, convey the Man's overwhelming sense of emptiness. Though ostensibly a means to support himself, his purchase of the junkyard seems more like an attempt to fill the emptiness with clutter and withdraw into the safety of objects. His random acts of junkyard destruction seem less an act of catharsis than a mere alleviation of boredom, and even with free reign to act out sans witnesses or interruptions, the Man doesn't go beyond minute gestures of mundane misbehavior like peeing in the middle of the junkyard or spying on a couple having sex.

His boredom ultimately leads him in search of human interaction in a nearby town. After a chance meeting with a Woman (Libby Hux) and her Brother (Lee Lynch) leads him to party and a near tryst at his hotel, the Man's journey is complete and he wakes up ready to return to his life.    

Nordstrom (center) takes the plunge with a woman (Libby Hux) and her brother (Lee Lynch).

Like Gus Van Sant's desert experiment 'Gerry,' Fenster's film is kept as open to interpretation as possible. Explanations of the narrative gaps are left to our imaginations, as are the characters' names and backgrounds, and Fenster is remarkably adept at expressing his ideas and creating moods through the desert panoramas and sleepy towns. The production values are surprisingly high considering the shoestring budget. There's a feeling of authenticity permeating the film, and one can sense the influence of Fenster's own experiences in the town.

He's also found a pleasant surprise in Nordstrom, a film school classmate of his who if his performance in 'Trona' is any indication may want to consider more work as an actor.    

Though Fenster has a plenty of interesting ideas and a confidently minimalist visual style to complement them, there's not quite enough going on in 'Trona' to keep it consistently interesting. Even at a trim 65 minutes, there are times when the film seems to drag interminably. Fenster sometimes gets so caught up in the sweeping landscape that he loses sight of his character, and although his effective framing and existential ideas will play well on the festival circuit, the meandering pacing and ambiguous details may lose the attention of normal audiences. But however one may interpret it, 'Trona' is a fearlessly sparse and immensely promising first film from a writer/director who still has much to explore.    

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