The Movie Waffler Vashon Island Film Festival 2023 Review - ESCAPING OHIO | The Movie Waffler

Vashon Island Film Festival 2023 Review - ESCAPING OHIO

Escaping Ohio review
A high school graduate is torn between leaving for California and staying in Ohio with her boyfriend.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jessica Michael Davis

Starring: Jessica Michael Davis, Colin Kelly-Sordelet, Emily Bergl, Adam Pascal, Carolyn Kang

Escaping Ohio poster

In many countries, the most desirable places to live tend to be on the coast, leaving midlands dwellers to dream about someday getting out of their small town and breathing in some sea air. In the US the MidWest is often the butt of jokes, referred to as "flyover country" by that nation's coastal folks. And in the MidWest itself, Ohio often bears the brunt of disparaging comments. Ohio native Jessica Michael Davis pays tribute to her home state with her feature debut as writer/director, Escaping Ohio (adapted from her 2021 short), while also acknowledging that it's a place most people with ambition end up leaving.

Escaping Ohio review

Davis casts herself in the lead role of Sam, who has just graduated from high school in the small Ohio city of Akron. Well versed in the tropes of the American teen comedy, Davis opens her movie with one of those classic montages in which the heroine introduces us to the details of her world while punk pop plays on the soundtrack. The centre of Sam's world is her best friend JJ (Colin Kelly-Sordelet). Lifelong friends, the two even work at the same fast food outlet so they can spend time in each other's company.

It's clear to everyone but Sam and JJ that they have a mutual attraction beyond friendship. One night the penny drops and they begin snogging, and for the following weeks they're inseparable. Trouble is, Sam has been accepted for an internship with a California-based publisher. JJ has no interest in leaving Akron, and so does his best to convince Sam that she belongs in Ohio.

Escaping Ohio review

Over the last couple of decades it's become a cliché in American indie films for the protagonist to realise that the small town they're so down on actually has more to offer them than the big city they're either headed for or as is so often the case, have returned from. Kudos to Davis for bucking this trend with her debut. While JJ and the film itself do a good job of showcasing the undervalued charms of Ohio, we're left in no doubt that Sam needs to leave to pursue her ambitions. This is a sad truth for millions of young people who might live in a scenic and pleasant part of their country, but decades of centralising industry and commerce around a few key urban areas means they have few options if they decide to stay put.

There's one big issue with Escaping Ohio however, and that's the casting of the two leads. Davis and Kelly-Sordelet are very good, and share a tangible chemistry. But they're simply too old for their roles. I haven't been able to find their ages but neither look a day younger than 25. Watching them mess around on skateboards calls to mind that popular online meme of Steve Buscemi in 30 Rock. It's particularly problematic in the case of Kelly-Sordelet, as JJ's solipsistic attempts to keep Sam around come off as a lot creepier than they might have if the role had been taken by a more age-appropriate actor. We could dismiss this as innocent heartbreak for a teenage boy, but watching a grown man play this role removes any sympathy we might have for JJ. In the final act you'll be forgiven for thinking the movie is about to take a dark turn into "stalked by my BFF" territory. It would be very easy for some wag with editing software to take Escaping Ohio and knock out one of those YouTube trailers that turns a comedy into a psycho-thriller.

Escaping Ohio review

The film never actually takes us down any such dark roads. It's as sunny in its disposition as a Disney channel kids show. Much of this is down to the presence of Davis, who has a real star quality. While there's little here to mark her out as a writer/director to watch, it's clear she has a bright future in front of the camera.

Escaping Ohio
 screens at the Vashon Island Film Festival on August 13th.

2023 movie reviews