Julian L. Goldberger’s debut feature is a haunting portrait of a teenage boy busted out of reform school with nowhere to run. Buried in the experimental “Frontier” section at last year’s Sundance, it elevated the festival for the handful of viewers that ventured away from the buzz. I caught up with it only because Richard Linklater tipped me off to how special a film it is.
Special, but no more experimental than Linklater’s own debut film, Slacker, which also shaped film language, ever so gently, to the sensibility of a ’90s generation and to the rhythms of a place that’s neither a glittering urban hell nor the sanctified heartland mythologized by Hollywood. Trans is set in southwest Florida, where the Everglades are bounded by small towns that are merely a gas station, a laundromat, a supermarket, and a bus depot set along a highway with a few rundown houses behind them. This is the place that’s home to Ryan Kazinski (Ryan Daugherty), who in his fantasy life is a space alien inhabiting a human body until he figures out what he was sent here to do.
What’s most remarkable about Trans is how faithful it is to Ryan’s consciousness and to the way it shifts between fantasy and a mesmerized response to details of the outside world: sunlight glinting on an open field, the beat-up silk on an ear of corn, the word “violation” displayed inside a parking meter. We don’t know what landed Ryan in reform school—probably nothing more than petty theft or sniffing freon. A gentle, guileless kid, he acts on impulse, his attention span too fragmented to calculate consequences. With only a month left on his sentence, he goes on the lam; instead of heading out of state, he hangs around to see his kid brother and then to rescue a dog from the pound. It’s not that he’s totally unaware of the law closing in; he just can’t stay focused on self-protection. We understand, better than he, how dire his situation is, which is why the film is so painful, particularly in its second half.
Over the subterranean narrative of the chase, Goldberger scatters a series of fragmentary scenes that map Ryan’s 48 hours of freedom. Shot with a handheld camera and occasionally rendered more dreamlike with slow or high-speed motion, the scenes are less dramatic interactions than windows onto the boy’s psyche. Daugherty, who had never acted before, has a broad, snub-nosed all-American face that’s in no way remarkable except when his eyes become rapt or when they seem to turn totally inward. His presence gives the film much of its immediacy and authenticity, and the large cast of nonprofessional local talent add immeasurably to the specific sense of place. It would be a slighting of Trans‘s specifically American 1990s beauty to compare it to The 400 Blows, although the comparison is deserved. Better to place it among such Florida films as Victor Nunez’s Ulee’s Gold and Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass, which mix fragility and toughness and prove that the aspiration toward regional filmmaking that inspired American indies back in the ’70s has not completely faded away.