“The first step is always the hardest,” the young housewife turned widow Amelia (a mesmerizing Jasmin Jandreau) says aloud near the end of writer/director William Parker’s feature filmmaking debut in order to help reinforce her decision to just keep marching – this time across a wide, daunting, fast-moving body of water erroneously described in her guide to the west as a ‘creek.’
And even though this line is said with mere minutes left to go in the film, it’s this same idea of these hard first steps that have brought her where she is at that moment that are chronicled in tremendously visceral detail in this spiritually tinged survival story, refreshingly told from the point-of-view of a woman.
The sole survivor after the wagon carrying her and her husband was attacked by Native Americans in an offscreen battle – Amelia is left alone, stranded somewhere along the Oregon Trail on the path to California.
Like many others, the promise of a better life had lured the impoverished couple out of their familiar surroundings when her dominant husband assured her that the fabled Gold Rush he’d heard stories about was the answer to their economic woes.
Ordered not to tell anyone where she was headed, not even her beloved parents, the dutiful God-fearing Amelia packed up all her belongings including her wedding dress and obeyed her husband Levi’s command.
Doing everything she can think of to survive from spelling out a message of “HELP” with rocks across a white sheet at the start of the film that’s in plain view of the trail to taking the boots off a corpse during the winter, Amelia soon learns that in order to live, she must cast aside the things that she thought she couldn’t live without.
Cleverly using part of her wedding gown to create a fishing net, Amelia rejoices in her newfound independence and quick-thinking before sadly realizing that in order to eat the fish, she must take its life herself. Obviously from the gown to the fish, we’re offered two pieces of symbolism in a movie that’s filled with it.
Throughout the film, Amelia goes from a bride to a woman who has become something more than merely decorative (as embodied by the gown etc.) as a human being in charge of her own fate. And while most storytellers would’ve been content with that, The Trail goes one better, giving Amelia another human being to look after so that she’s in charge of a child, who must follow her lead the way that she followed her husband’s. Of course, there's yet another twist to go regarding this turn of events that, when coupled with a few other morality lessons does get the better of the movie in the end.
At its best when it’s subtle and understated, The Trail gets a bit bogged down by its rather heavy-handed treatment of religion, ending with both an onscreen bible passage (Romans 5:3) as well as giving Amelia her own speech to sum up all the lessons she learned along the way, which is not only needlessly repetitive but goes against the naturalistic style that was employed in the film’s first two acts. With this in mind, it’s a little on the uneven side, failing to find precisely the right rhythm and maintain it throughout the whole picture but when it works, it’s quite impressive.
Given its wholesome historical feel, it’s destined to appeal to viewers of similar period productions from Little House on the Prairie to Sarah, Plain and Tall all the way up through Hallmark’s smash successful adaptations of Janette Oke works from the Love Comes Softly series to When Calls the Heart.
And while it’s sure to play exceedingly well to its target audience of Christian viewers, given the film’s rebranded DVD title of Let God and timely pre-Easter release, Parker’s film may not be as easily entertaining as other titles due to its somber subject matter. Nonetheless, this Dove Foundation Family Approved offering marks a promising debut for the helmer.
An official selection at the Breckenridge Film Festival that garnered two accolades honoring both the feature as well as its director – despite some of its heavy Sunday School style symbolism, it’s still a welcome rarity to experience a historical fiction film from the point of view of a female.
Furthermore, The Trail offers audiences an independent movie alternative to the same big budget stories of survival against all odds that have flooded cinemas over the course of the last year from Gravity to All is Lost, by doing for land what those filmmakers did for space and sea.
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