“The only difference between children and grown-ups is that the grown-ups are unsupervised.” This line, uttered in the second half of Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’s seventh feature Gasoline Rainbow, is not particularly framed as words of wisdom. The award-winning filmmakers have explored American life through places, people, and their interconnectedness since the late 2000s in a way that’s far from linear. A multitude of voices, characters (or simply people) populate the screen, their practice exploratory before it aims at any definitive answers. The why and the why-not are irrelevant questions, yet every new offering feels as profound as life itself. Gasoline Rainbow, a premiere in this year’s Venice Orizzonti sidebar, benefits from their trademark hybrid filmmaking, placing nonprofessional teenage actors on a thrilling 513-mile journey from Wiley, Oregon, to the Pacific Ocean.

Tony (Tony Abuerto), Micah (Micah Bunch), Nichole (Nichole Dukes), Nathaly (Nathaly Garcia), and Makai (Makai Garza) make up the film’s group protagonist. They are out of school now, have known each other for many years, and are up for one last adventure before they’re supposed to get jobs and all. To mark this symbolic rite of passage they come up with a literal task: a road trip from their hometown to the Ocean for the End of the World party. Ominous, but abstract enough, this end goal reminds one of Homer’s Odyssey. In the Greek myth, Odysseus ventured for ten years in order to return home, but looking closer you realize his journey was composed only of detours––some more pleasant than others––so maybe his real purpose was to have an adventure. The same could be said for these five teen Odyssseus-es who are open and receptive to everything that comes their way.

Bill and Turner Ross approach the narrative with a deep understanding of vagrancy as soul-searching and the camaraderie it entails. For this purpose the journey is the destination, and while this may sound like a cliché, the vulnerability shared by all pours through the free-flowing visual aesthetics. The Ross Brothers directed, shot, and edited the film into a piece of mesmerizing realism, an end product that is much more than its two composites. A third, quasi-magical being, Gasoline Rainbow is alive and beating, with the protagonists’ characters coming through as versions of themselves, their worries as well as their disregard for the future. They’re never afraid to make risky jokes, to comment on the state of the world, to express being homesick and hate their hometown in the same sentence, to talk immigration and deportation experienced by their families. Home is never conceptualized––unless as a place to leave behind––but in their togetherness we quickly gather that they are their own home. 

In addition to the dynamic camerawork that envelopes more than one person at a time (and usually all of them in flux), the film’s sound is one of its most intimate and crucial aspects. Michael Hurley’s folk songs or Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” are scattered across idyllic melodies to accompany these temporary nomads on their journey. The tone is homey wherever they go, whoever they meet. And the people they meet are equally welcoming. Brisk but deep conversations reveal more about what it’s like to be a teenager in America today, and it’s only fitting that these moments are never relegated to their downtime. On the contrary, profound honesty pours out in transit––they change from a van to a boat to train and on foot––but the ease of conversation softens each and every one of their surroundings, be it desert, forest, or desolate road.

The most affecting part of the film’s form is how talking is often made crosstalk, and we can hear their voices crisp and clear even if the group is far away. This disconnect between sound and image is decisively anti-documentarian, but it brings us closer to the characters nonetheless. At times, voiceover monologues puncture the journey, but it never feels disruptive. Since these were excerpts gleaned from interviews with the actors, they are raw and get closer to the “creative treatment of actuality,” John Grierson’s famous definition of documentary. Overlaying conversation on top of long shots is a befitting use of post-syncing to expand these teen voices to the breadth of nameless American landscapes. In this choice there is immense generosity and great empathy to a generation that already has a lot on their shoulders. They might as well have some fun with it.

Gasoline Rainbow premiered at the 2023 Venice Film Festival and will be released by MUBI.

Grade: B+

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