Braden King’s semi-experimental road romance HERE—the all-caps title apparently suggests something a more conventional title could not—was developed out of a multimedia piece that screened as part of Sundance’s New Frontier program in 2008. This background explains why a love story has been grafted onto a willfully abstract, elliptical landscape film, and why those two elements interact so awkwardly at times. King’s interest seems much more keenly directed toward the latter side of the equation—in documenting the extraordinary beauty of Armenia’s cities and uncharted countryside, and in engaging in a little cultural anthropology. When he tries to apply his topography skills to a “map of the human heart”—a title that would have been perfect if it weren’t already taken—King shows a less certain hand, at times too artfully distant, and at others too on-the-nose banal.
Yet there’s a weary soul to HERE, embodied by Ben Foster and Lubna Azabal as two loners who meet in a café and impulsively decide to travel the country together, prompted more by mutual intuition than any meaningful exchange of words. Foster plays an American satellite-mapping engineer who’s determined to give the world an accurate picture of Armenia’s more obscure coordinates, which means trekking around various hillsides and jotting numbers down in his laptop. For her part, Azabal is an expatriate photographer returning to Armenia to take some pictures, reconnect with her aging parents, and strike out on an adventure. There’s an expiration date on their relationship, but they’re content to defer that inevitability and see where the road takes them.
King seems to follow that philosophy, too, and it doesn’t always serve him well. The unstructured, come-what-may quality of a road movie is part of its appeal, but it can be a pitfall, too, when all that spontaneity starts to look more like lollygagging. Foster and Azabal have great chemistry together, but King plays their romance too cool—at least until it combusts in a confrontation that lays everything on the table. He also adds a few interstitial sequences with Peter Coyote narrating allegory over a flurry of treated images. In spite of King’s obvious gifts, his experimental flourishes tend to obscure, more than illuminate, his quick-burn romance. Sometimes it pays to be more direct.