Bereavement, mental health, the threadbare US social welfare system and homelessness are the heavy topics that British-born director Deborah Richards tackles in her debut feature. Unfortunately, their worthy but superficial and somewhat incoherent presentation means that Move Me No Mountain is an emotionally and thematically inert experience.
Real estate agent Jenna (Cat Lellie) is struggling to cope after losing her daughter in a traffic accident. Disengaged from her group therapy sessions, failing to turn up for work and ignoring her boss’ calls, Jenna eventually finds herself out of a job and homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.
Leading a small cast, Lellie does her best with limited material, but struggles to excavate much depth from Jenna, despite the immense burden of grief that we are told she is under. A major part of the problem is in the film’s editing and structure, which robs Jenna of any dimension other than ‘grieving mother’. In the opening moments, we see her struggling with work and therapy, only for her to be abruptly thrust into homelessness.
Charitably, one might argue that such a jolt is an expression of the cruelty and precariousness of the American social welfare system, but there are surely a few steps between getting the sack and sleeping rough. Skipping these misses opportunities both to offer a critique of the social system and portray Jenna as a complex individual.
The film then becomes a survival story as she learns not to trust others, scrounge food and find shelter. Yet each of these points feel like perfunctory moments that teach us little about Jenna as a person, the nuance of her grief, or the systemic failings that have led to her condition. The film’s raison d’etre solidifies when she meets Lizbeth (Layla Campbell), a little girl living out of an abusive woman’s car posing as her mother. As Jenna forms a bond with Lizbeth, Jenna’s homelessness becomes a metaphor for her grief; a traumatic journey on which to travel before emerging mother newly redeemed.
On that point, it is unforgivable that homelessness is represented as exclusively white, with not a single homeless character in the film being a person of colour. Given that homelessness in LA is deeply and chronically-racialised, as it is across the US, this is simply outrageous. Homelessness is not a metaphor, but a real, lived experience and the product of profound social and systemic failings; this is not to say that it cannot function symbolically, but handling it as such requires a degree of sensitivity that often seems beyond Move Me No Mountain’s gift.
Less politically egregious, at least, is the cinematography, whose bleached colours and wide shots capture the madness of LA’s angular, apocalyptic freeways, tunnels and man-made river. A few failed, unintentionally silly attempts at Lynchian surreality aside – the man in a horse’s mask in the desert is as po-faced as it is silly – Move Me No Mountain’s visuals are its strongest suit.
As a debut feature, Richards’ film is a worthy attempt at tackling important themes, but its failure to represent homelessness as anything other than a scary ordeal experienced by white individuals is a major misstep. Despite bright spots, issues compound on one another, chief among them being the depth of characterisation and the extent to which the film understands its own themes as intersectional products of systemic failure.