Jessica Ellis’s What Lies West has a quiet grace that stays with you long after the storylines have neatly concluded. This deceptively simple coming of age tale slips under your skin to become a complex exploration of people at varying stages sharing this distinctly fulfilling experience. Ingeniously, the film questions whether this kind of growth can only happen at a specific time of life. Instead, writer/director Ellis reminds us that real change can be a shared experience, one in which people inspire each other.
Nicolette (Nicolette Ellis) is a drama school graduate who takes a summer job watching Chloe (Chloe Moore) – a nervous teen with an even more neurotic mom, Annie (Annie Peterson), – while she ponders her next moves in her quest for Hollywood fame. Enthusiastic and friendly, this young woman certainly has her work cut out for her as she navigates relationships with these two very distrustful people. Her first obstacle, however, is to get Chloe out of her room, never mind outside the house. It is summer vacation after all.
Jessica Ellis wisely uses a nuanced approach to set the scene. What Lies West begins with a heightened atmosphere, a pitch perfect tone that amplifies the comedic possibilities of the situation. As things proceed, the filmmaker slides ever so gently into a more intimate style – one that invites us to truly empathize with her characters. Even her stylistic approach changes as mid shots give way to close ups when the characters start to really relate to each other. As the tension builds, Ellis’ expert control of the film allows her integrate more painful notes with moments of true joy.
What Lies West explores how our perceived fears can be paralyzing, preventing us from realizing our dreams. Because of its subtlety of style, the film presents a multi-layered and nuanced experience, one that allows for a deep resonance. Ironically, it is when the most obviously nervous character faces up to her fears that real healing begins – even more so as she confronts the other two.
But the film belongs to the entire trio of imperfect souls. Ellis’ lovable characters end up teaching each other to face fears and live life more fully. This compelling tale of friendship is an experience not soon forgotten by any of us.