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D: Craig Elrod / 86m

Cast: Macon Blair, Lee Eddy, John Merriman, Molly Karrasch, Jason Newman, Byron Brown, Haley Alea Erickson

In Mustang Island, the second feature from writer/director Craig Elrod, Bill (Blair) and his girlfriend Molly (Karrasch) break up on New Year’s Eve. Reduced to uncontrollable tears by this event, Bill crashes his car into a boat, breaks his arm and flees the scene before he’s arrested by the police. Later, he learns that Molly may have gone to her family’s place on Mustang Island. Rounding up his brother, John (Merriman), and John’s friend and co-worker Travis (Newman), the trio set off for the island with Bill intending to make things right with Molly. When they get there, the house is empty and there’s no sign that Molly has even been there. Bill decides to stay a while in the hope that Molly shows up, and John and Travis stay with him. At a local diner, John spies a waitress, Lee (Eddy), that he’s attracted to. But John is painfully shy and despite Bill’s attempts to bring them together, it soon becomes clear that Lee likes Bill instead of John. Bill finds that he has feelings for Lee as well, but as ever with Bill, there are problems to overcome…

Set on the real Mustang Island (which is located on the Gulf Coast of Texas), Elrod’s follow up to The Man from Orlando (2012) is a quirky, understated tale that relies heavily on nuance and tone in order to tell its simple yet engrossing story. Elrod’s script calls for dozens of moments where the camera lingers on a character’s face and the viewer is given the time to realise and understand what that character is feeling or thinking. It’s these quiet moments that are of the greatest importance, as the characters are not as articulate as they would like to be, and expressing their emotions is uncomfortable and scary for them. By focusing on their features and the range of expressions that play across them, Elrod and his talented cast ensure that the viewer is in no doubt as to what anyone is thinking or feeling. This allows for moments of sadness, heartbreak, vulnerability, and poignancy as the characters strive to make sense of their own feelings while trying not to hurt anyone else’s. It’s a subdued, reflective movie that offers hope amidst the setbacks experienced by its characters, and is shot through with a winning sense of humour, particularly in a diner scene where Bill thinks everyone is looking at him.

Headed by Blair, the main cast members offer impressive, detailed performances that are sincere and refreshingly unspoiled by notions of “acting”. Blair and Eddy are married in real life, and this adds a sensitivity to their portrayals that makes them all the more convincing. Merriman is one of the movie’s best assets, though, his solid, restrained performance a sheer pleasure to watch whenever he’s on screen, and his expressions of happiness and delight are to be treasured thanks to the childlike innocence they convey. The movie’s real trump card, however, is the decision to shoot in black and white. This adds another level of detail to Elrod’s already meticulously assembled screenplay, and the use of light and shade to complement the characters’ moods, emotions and desires, adds depth to all those aspects. And the movie is simply beautiful to look at, with as many striking compositions encompassing the island surroundings as there are devastating close-ups (especially the final one). It’s all rounded off by a well chosen soundtrack, and a warm and thoughtful score by first-timer Benjamin Prosser.

Rating: 8/10 – assembled with care and intelligence and a surfeit of confidence, Mustang Island is a beautifully observed romantic comedy drama that does justice to all those elements, and which has so much to offer viewers, it’s a stone’s throw from being embarrassing; Elrod and everyone else involved are to be congratulated for making a movie that is genuinely, unashamedly heartfelt in places, and unswervingly affectionate toward its delightful cast of characters.

NOTE: Surprisingly, there is no trailer available for Mustang Island.