Hazy Teen Road Trip Gasoline Rainbow Finds Reality Wanting

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Hazy Teen Road Trip Gasoline Rainbow Finds Reality Wanting

Earlier this year, I watched Easy Rider for the first time. Bikers, sideburns and late nights smoking the devil’s lettuce kicked off the creative gold rush of New Hollywood and set the template for a specific kind of rambling, culturally-minded hang-out movie. I’d certainly read about Easy Rider, and knew its importance to the film industry at large, but I was struck by how modern the 1969 film still felt—and how American. A lonesome cross-country ride provides the perfect canvas of asphalt and grain, empty and waiting for those fleeing the establishment to tear a path across it. Out there, any group of chatty transients, regardless of generation, could do their drugs of choice and raise their middle fingers to The Man. Gasoline Rainbow—written, directed and shot by brothers Bill and Turner Ross—presents Gen Z with this broad tradition, and with the Rosses’ hyper-real form. While the youth are still game to rebel, the film’s calculated spontaneity leaves its travelers stranded in search of something real, an ironically contrived quest whose very undertaking undermines its goal.

Where the Rosses’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets saw non-actor barflies moving their lives into a fictional pub, Gasoline Rainbow expands this truth-in-fiction conceit beyond a single set. The film’s hazy road trip production mimics its narrative: As Gasoline Rainbow‘s unwieldy group of recent high school grads undertake their journey—wandering from podunk Wiley, Oregon to Portland—so did the cast and crew. Tony Abuerto, Micah Bunch, Nichole Dukes, Nathaly Garcia and Makai Garza all play versions of themselves (high school IDs plastering their realities on-screen before they begin their adventure), improvising their way through the Rosses’ liminal scenes.

This ad-libbing means that their mumblecore teen talk mostly reverts to them swearing like they just learned how; using “fuck” as a filler word might not be a universal experience, but it was certainly mine. There’s a sweetness to this. It’s not often you see high people having high conversations without writerly ambitions shouldering their way through, trying to make these stoned characters sound as smart as they feel. When the tatted-and-pierced van-dwellers bump into jacket-patched gutterpunks, skaters, street racers, beach bonfiregoers and other roamers, the interactions at least haven’t been dressed up as something they’re not. A guy who looks like Steve-O sings a little Tom Bombadil song as he makes the kids a hangover breakfast, and you think “Yeah, that guy exists.”

Tiptoeing along the edges of these vague chats—either between the core group and the conveyor belt of randos they encounter, or between themselves—are minor conversational gestures towards actual things people might have conversations about (racial discrimination, youthful alienation, small-town ennui). But these short detours towards insight, or even anecdotal specificity, are brief and strained. I’m reminded of how my little brother answered “How was school today?” in the throes of his dinner-table angst. It never feels like someone is being vulnerable, but like something is being coaxed.

Even as Gasoline Rainbow devotes itself to pursuing truth, an invisible hand waves (“Great, can we get a little more on that?”) just off-screen. The atmosphere becomes like one of those hidden camera shows where there are some plants hired to do particular things—ask certain questions—and unsuspecting others filmed reacting to them. Here, though, everyone knows they’re walking into something, just not what exactly. Awkwardness ensues. Scenes become a little stilted, a little broad, often upbeat in a yes-and way. When the dialogue finally stops, the cast offers small moments of unselfconscious sweetness and intimacy more indicative of their generation than anything said aloud.

This uneven idea of authenticity, of honest reactions and in-the-moment observations, permeates the film’s aesthetic. The actions of the characters follow the edict of The Real World (“stop being polite, and start getting real”) and, for the most part, the camera tries to do the same. Kind of. Ultra-close camerawork and realistic doc-style shot choices immerse us in this chaotic, summery jailbreak from the confines of a small town. Sometimes—especially when the characters look directly in the lens—Gasoline Rainbow’s camerapeople seem like unseen members of the pack. Sometimes the characters themselves are filming on their phones. Sometimes the whole conceit is abandoned for the sake of beautiful images or an exciting angle.

Grainy, vibrating sequences inside the group’s janky van cut to cleanly framed establishing shots. The here-and-now is intercut with photo slideshows like we’re looking back on their vacation. “Here” and “now” become unmoored from the literal documentation of direct cinema (or even the more fantastical editing of reality TV). The effect can be transportive and poetic—like ambling beach footprints leaving behind a trail of bioluminescence, or the cast disappearing into the dawn’s fog—and it can simply be pretty, at a remove. Either way, we remember the images more than those who saw them first.

As the crew heads towards the semi-mythical, mostly forgotten promise of The Party at the End of the World, endlessly introducing themselves as they freighthop and get blitzed, this vague narrative and the stammering improvisations that get it from A to B clutter Gasoline Rainbow’s collage. Casey McAllister’s score does heavy lifting to fill the dead air and ornament the verbal white noise. These sounds range from low-key city pop to distorted guitar so bent it almost sounds like it’s playing backwards. It’s accompanied by a familiar collection of pop cultural flotsam that just floats through our air at any given moment. That could mean the kids start singing “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or Moana songs, it could mean that a tiny TV is playing a Cheech & Chong movie.

In these moments, you do feel sucked into Gasoline Rainbow’s good-vibes-only trip. You map your own memories onto the new ones made here, captured with not much more fantasy than you may ascribe to your collection of old Polaroids. But beyond the senses, there’s nothing pumping blood through this movie. No desires, no hurt—no people. Easy Rider navel-gazes with the best of them, its graveyard acid trip and uptight Jack Nicholson punctuating the more ponderous observations of its times-they-are-a-changin’ script. The Man isn’t a specter, but right in front of them, driving them out of their minds. Gasoline Rainbow is chill, man. It espouses a vague neo-hippy ethos somewhere between a queer found-family mantra and a pop-punk rallying cry: My friends are the best and I’ll be ok as long as I have them. Papering over disaffection with affection for each other is a warm twist on this old rebellious formula, but there’s so little substance in this reality-hunting experiment that even this nebulous throughline has the manufactured sheen of a Levi’s ad.

Director: Bill Ross, Turner Ross
Writer: Bill Ross, Turner Ross
Starring: Tony Abuerto, Micah Bunch, Nichole Dukes, Nathaly Garcia, Makai Garza
Release Date: May 10, 2024

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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