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D: Brett Simon / 92m

Cast: Alex Sharp, Analeigh Tipton, Jeremy Irons, Edi Gathegi, Maria Bello, Karan Soni, Chad Faust

Working at an All Shop, Harley (Sharp) is enamoured of Stephanie (Tipton), who in turn is the object of store boss’ Mr Hankey’s (Faust) inappropriate attentions. One night, with the store closed, Hankey makes a play for Stephanie in his office, then attempts to rape her, but Harley comes to her rescue. In the ensuing scuffle though, it’s Stephanie who causes Hankey to fall through a window to his death. Panicking, Harley calls the police to let them know what happened, but in doing so, unwittingly sets the FBI – in the manic form of Agent McFadden (Bello) and her neophyte partner, Agent Nelson (Soni) – on his and Stephanie’s trail. Not content with it being just the two of them, Harley also takes along his war veteran grandfather, Garrison (Irons). Intent on using being on the run as an excuse to visit a number of roadside attractions on their way to meet an old flame of Garrison’s, the trio become a quartet when they pick up wannabe hippie, Fitz Paradise (Gathegi). As the trip continues, they visit several of the attractions on Harley’s map, and discover they share a camaraderie that deepens the longer the trip goes on…

From its opening scenes where Harley moons over the object of his affections while she behaves as if she’s in a world of her own (which, it turns out, she is), Better Start Running sets out its stall as a quirky indie romantic comedy. That it’s only partially successful is down to the narrative vagaries inherent in the script by Chad Faust and Annie Burgstede, which keeps realigning its focus every few scenes and adds moments of drama to the mix that don’t always sit well with the movie’s overall rom-com vibe. Whether it’s Bello’s gung-ho bordering on psychotic FBI agent, or Irons’ irascible and lovelorn grandfather, or even Gathegi’s mid-life crisis experiencing husband and father, the movie takes occasional lurches into more serious territory before righting itself and remembering it’s a rom-com. And even then the romantic elements are subdued, with Harley and Stephanie only coming together as a couple out of necessity rather than anything resembling true love. Maybe the movie is being deliberately counter-intuitive, but if the romantic angle doesn’t convince, then why have it there in the first place? In truth, it suffers because of all the other elements the script has seen fit to squeeze in along the way.

So the movie is uneven and often frustrating, though when it strikes the right note, it does so with a great deal of charm and skill. Some of this is down to the performances – Irons and Bello add a great deal of energy to proceedings – some of it is due to the offbeat nature of the roadside attractions that get a visit (give a big shout out to Devil’s Tower, everyone), but mostly it’s because this is a movie chock-full of laugh out loud one-liners. From Garrison’s earnest instruction to Harley (“If you must come to tomorrow, I need a flash light, concertina wire and buckshot!”) to Harley’s own admission early on (“I’m sorry. I have to go now. I’m going on the run.”), Faust and Burgstede’s script ensures that the movie retains a spirit of fun throughout, even when it can’t help but slide sideways into Seriousville. Simon juggles the various elements with aplomb but can’t unite them into an acceptable whole, and he never finds a way to offset the feeling that the writers have deliberately ensured that Harley and Stephanie aren’t the brightest bunnies in the petting zoo (which isn’t necessary at all). Still, it is amusing, and thankfully so, otherwise this would have been one road trip best conducted from the driveway.

Rating: 6/10 – with the comedic aspects triumphing every time over the script’s other, less developed or worthy elements, Better Start Running is a mixed bag that sadly, doesn’t always gel as well as it should; likeable overall, it should still be approached with caution, a bit like Agent McFadden when she’s got a perp in her sights: “A cost of a year’s incarceration? $50,000. Cost of a bullet? Fifty cents. Do the math.”

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