If you do even a quickie search around the web on this film, you’ll get just about as many results from From Above results as you would Chasing Shakespeare, the title it sported during several film fests last year. I’m guessing that some focus group chose the awful From Above name after Chasing Shakespeare proved too nebulous or not entirely indicative of what the film was about. Thing is though, the film itself is a bit nebulous and not indicative of what it’s about. Sporting various elements of various things, like themes from Shakespeare, both literal and figurative, Native American mysticism, timeless love, love across racial and cultural lines, From Above never completely settles on any one thing to guide it and thus comes across with a less than clear tone and message.
The film centers on the love story of Venus and William, she a rebellious young member of the obscure Native American Lightning Clan tribe with a fierce love of Shakespeare and a dream to be a Shakespearean actress, and he a conflicted young man fighting his father’s expectations to carry on the tradition of being a farmer in 1972 Arkansas. The story is told in flashback from present day Old William’s (Danny Glover) POV as he struggles with Venus’ (Tantoo Cardinal) recent death. She had refused treatment that possibly could have staved off her sickness, and asked William to prepare a special bed with wheels so that she could be wheeled out to a tree during a storm to be taken away by the lightning in accordance with her beliefs. Their son, Ricky (Justin Alston), has a lot of resentment toward William as a result, despite the fact it was what his mother wanted.
William drifts through his grief, recalling his first meeting Venus (the luminous Chelsea Ricketts) during her audition for the lead in a local staging of Romeo and Juliet in 1972. Venus has to wade through the less-than-veiled racism from the other girls, even after she gives a reading that none of the rest of them can hope to match. Still, the casting goes as would be expected, and while that door closes, another opens up in the form of young William (the well-built Mike Wade, you know he’s well-built because he shirtless half the time), whom she decides to court. Venus and her guardian, Mr. Mountain (Graham Greene), prove to be a couple of jokers at William’s expense as they trick him into washing Mountain’s truck and taking off his shirt when he meets her family, cloaking their deceit in Indian rituals. Venus shows him some of the ways of her Lightning Clan, whose beliefs stem from the storm. Mountain tells William of the First Man and how his development and the very first love affair all stemmed from lightning.
In the present, Old William meanders through his loss, until he starts seeing Venus in visions brought on by lightning, getting struck by it at one point and landing in the hospital. Meanwhile, Ricky doesn’t believe William when he tries to tell him about the visions of his mother, and that she’s trying to contact him. Old William decides to seek out answers by exploring the visions and the lightning, by using the lightning rods that were on Venus’ family’s house. He starts acting more irrational, making Ricky fear for his well being. Still, Old William remembers back in the day, and how Venus was determined to pursue her dream in New York, but how he was trapped by his father’s expectations. However, circumstances soon find young William on a train to find Venus, even as she suffers through an unusual illness and gives an impromptu performance of The Tempest with her friend Molly (Ashley Bell) in the middle of Broadway on the tops of cars during a lightning storm.
There’s a lot to like in From Above, even as there is also much to critique in the negative. Chelsea Ricketts is marvelous as young Venus. She embodies an unusual mix of love of Shakespeare and Indian mysticism, and a defiance to accepting things as they are, both in terms of prejudices against her and perceived rules and predestination from her beliefs. But what exactly that predestination is is never spelled out. Something happens regarding her family that apparently comes from on high, that she rebels against, even though it means certain consequences will be incurred by her and her dream must be pursued forthwith or be lost. Young William figures into that somehow, but his own issues with his father throw a monkey wrench into that predestination. And there’s never any mention made about the major family event, even though it spins her toward her New York destiny. It’s just muddy as to whether or not the lightning is telling her to follow her dream or to be with William or what. And then apparently the rules change and she ends up with him anyway, with apparently no consequences. Again it’s all a bit nebulous.
Yet, even as Ricketts is affecting as young Venus, and Mike Wade is earnest as young William, together, unfortunately, they have almost no chemistry. So this love affair that crosses societal rules on Earth and may or may not be guided from beyond just never grabs, despite the two actors’ best efforts. Also, the alternation between flashback and present aren’t always smooth, and as such it disrupts the flow of both time periods, often making the whole thing come off like two different stories rather than one all-encompassing one. The film also felt about 15 minutes too long. And as for Mountain, he’s far more than he seems, but apparently a dick as he provides a deus ex machina of all things to Old William’s quest, which is bad enough, but it’s one that he could have given at any time after Venus death, rather than having William suffer through his loss and get struck by lightning among other things for Pete’s sake.
Additionally, there are themes that are never rally carried through fully, like how Venus’ and William’s love mirrors Romeo and Juliet’s, but that it really doesn’t because there never is any real opposition to their pairing, not from the community, nor from the beyond. It’s admirable that Nevin tries to melange the disparate themes here, because there is some pretty unique storytelling going on (a tad bit of Smoke Signals by way of Powder), but the Shakespeare and the mysticism just don’t always mix. Nevin does shoot several sequences gorgeously though, like a horse ride between the two young lovers and also the Shakespeare on Broadway. Ultimately, it’s just that From Above tries to be too many things and never quite hits any one of them well enough.
From Above is from Vertical Entertainment and premieres on VOD and DVD/Blu-ray on February 4.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars