Jessica Goldberg’s taciturn feature-length debut, adapted from her 2000 play, touts its small-scale indie virtues as if its life depended on it. The camera is hand-held, the setting a nondescript blue-collar town. The characters are broken, dead-ended, indecisive, and inexpressive; when they do make a move, it’s usually impulsive (bar fights, bingeing on ecstasy).
Lilting, solemn country-folk music plays over shots of dreary scenery and pensive faces. Since the lead actress is a TV darling (in this case, Breaking Bad‘s Krysten Ritter), expect the sex scenes to be muted and the participants to keep their undergarments on. Amy (Ritter) is a self-sufficient twentysomething whose parents’ sudden abandonment has forced her to support her younger siblings: surly Nat (Logan Huffman), still prone to dizzy spells years after his brain tumor removal, and rebellious Lucy (Madeleine Martin), a raver with a secret penchant for bruising herself.
Into their dysfunctional, codependent home enters Sam (Brian Geraghty), a dazed drifter with his own tragic history, whose drunken tryst with Amy slowly blossoms into romance. The suspense lies in whether Amy will embark on an endless road trip with Sam, potentially fracturing family ties. The performances are sweet-natured and sometimes surprising (the baby-voiced Martin, in particular, shifts from pouty defiance to manipulative sobbing with impressive swiftness).
The dialogue is often funny, sometimes intentionally (“No drugs in this house except pot!” Amy nonchalantly commands), sometimes less so (“Keep your distance,” a snooty schoolmate tells Lucy, “or my Mom will take away my computer!”). But it also has its fair share of stilted groaners, most notably when Nat asks Amy what love is like.
The film was completed in 2012 but its theatrical release was delayed, and there’s a reason; even at its well-meaning best, Refuge is listless.