With so many grim movies being released, a crowd-pleaser feels taboo. Even superhero flicks like “Captain America: Civil War” and “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” felt dark. The latter more so than the former. Too much of that, however, is alienating. That’s why it’s nice, every once and a while, to find a movie as warm as “Where the Road Runs Out.” The South African drama is content with delivering positive vibes. It’s not particularly well-formed or original, but it’s light and fun.
Motivated by the death of his old friend, Cheese, George (Isaach De Bankole, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer”) an academia-weary scientist and lecturer, returns to his home of Equatorial Guinea and takes over Cheese’s broken down field station. He soon meets Jimmy (Sizo Motsoko, “Vehicle 19”), a boy from the nearby orphanage. Over the weeks, Jimmy plays matchmaker for his teacher, Corina (Juliet Landau, “The Bronx Bull”), and George.
The plot meanders a lot, and the characters never feel free from it. While George and Corina’s courtship is evidently the heart of the movie, there are so many other plots around it that never quite fit. For example, George’s best friend Martin (Stelio Savante, “Windsor”) shows up manufacturing conflict where it isn’t necessary. When the conflict does arise, especially in the last 15 minutes, it feels so fake that it’s actually hilarious.
But that’s not the point of the movie. Even the romance isn’t the point of the movie. George is a Guinean native who’s given himself to Western culture so he could one day come back and help his father. Unfortunately, his father dies before he can do that, and he returns home to find that he’s become a stranger. Slowly, he rediscovers his love for the island of Bioko and the people there.
Jimmy, a gregarious boy with a leg brace, is his gateway to the culture. Motsoko’s performance as Jimmy is unpolished, and often forced, but him and Bankole have a rapport that carries their scenes through.
Even so, there are more troubling aspects to this theme. Corina, while she clearly loves the kids she works with, rarely qualifies Bioko positively. She stays, she says, because everyone else leaves, and who else will help these poor children? It’s a colonialist way of thinking, and one that reduces the movie. While her character makes sense, there’s a Bioko woman named Juanita (Elizabeth Mlangeni) who seems to do the same job. However, she isn’t afforded personhood or sexuality of any kind, save for a scene at the end.
Despite the more problematic aspects, “Where the Road Runs Out” is content with delivering a pleasant story. It just feels good to watch, especially when George and Jimmy share the screen. It’s definitely muddled, never quite sure of itself. But it grounds itself in George’s rediscovery of the island of Bioko and its culture. Inevitably that makes for some tricky moments, but “Where the Road Runs Out” rides high on its kindhearted tone. A movie as generous and gentle as this is rare, and it’s a journey worth taking.