A wilderness-survival tale loosely in the vein of Jacob Aaron Estes’ Independent Spirit Award-minted Mean Creek, Surviving Crooked Lake illustrates the downside of body wrangling that Weekend at Bernie’s never showed. An earnestly pitched tale that played the Slamdance Festival a couple years back, the movie features some decently grounded if not star-making adolescent performances, as well as a pleasantly hazy visual scheme that uses its natural surroundings as a more compelling backdrop than many like-minded great-outdoors dramas, which trade in a prodding and peculiarly modern fear of the unknown. Eventually, however, hackneyed story choices overwhelm the film, which devolves into a lather-rinse-and-repeat cycle of arguments, river-rowing and wandering about.
Co-written and directed, in unusual collaborative fashion, by Sascha Drews, Ezra Krybus and Matthew Miller, Surviving Crooked Lake centers around a quartet of 14-year-old teenage girls who take a canoe trip as part of their summer camp experience. Reticent Steph (Stephannie Richardson) is the focal point, and occasional narrator herein, while Morgan (Morgan McCunn) is most in bloom. Also along for the ride are Alysha (Alysha Aubin) and Candice (Candice Mausner). Steph is sill traumatized by her dad’s recent death, and afraid of the water, so her older brother Jonah (Guy Yarkoni), a camp counselor, convinces her to go along by volunteering as the group’s chaperone and promising to look out for her. He does, until an unfortunate accident befalls him — after an abortive make-out session with Morgan — leaving the girls to make some tough decisions about what to do with his body as they try to navigate their way back to civilization.
There are grace notes of the same sorts of themes — grief, loneliness and misplaced attraction — plumbed in something like 12 & Holding, another snapshot of cusp-of-pubescence turmoil, but the nitty-gritty of dramatic conflict and the acting here are not up to snuff, quite simply. The girls are good at reacting, and conveying the easy rapport of adolescent friendship. But once things get “heavy,” as it were, their difficulties in believably emoting ramp up and poke through.
There’s also a major problem with suspension of disbelief; it defies credulity that, absent some clever write-around to explain matters, Jonah alone would be granted custody of the four girls, or that they would take two canoes, leaving three girls alone in one vessel and he and one of the girls in the other. Some clear, easy explanations in the set-up could have helped circumvent these problems, along with questions about maps and other matters that later come into play. As is, the movie basically just plays out a string, consisting of arguments over whether or not to dump/bury Jonah’s body, battles with nature (rapids, a lingering wolf), and then more arguments over maps and direction, since apparently none of the girls can remember that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
The film’s cinematography (co-credited to Drews and Krybus in press notes, though IMDb lists only the latter in this regard) is a big plus, all things considered, though there’s an impulsivity to the hand-held camerawork which sometimes works well and serves the story, and other times submarines its effectiveness. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that Surviving Crooked Lake is all that bad, it’s just that there’s no memorable or original driving tension to the story. It merely happens, and then is done. (Neoclassics, unrated, 89 minutes)