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‘Gasoline Rainbow’ is a memorable teenage road trip along an improvised Oregon trail

Michael Phillips – Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Wiley, Oregon is a nowhere kind of one-stoplight town. It’s not even that: The droopy overhanging traffic light blinks only yellow. No traffic. Just the light.

This forlorn image signals the start of one end of “Gasoline Rainbow,” the latest genre blur from the brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, now playing at limited theaters and streaming on MUBI.com starting May 31. A beat-up Econoline-type van interrupts the silence. In it are five Wiley high school graduates, nervously thrilled with the getaway they’re about to make. The kids haven’t stolen anything, other than the van “borrowed” from one of the friends’ folks. But time and the meager options afforded by Wiley have stolen plenty from these five. As we share their zigzag, life-altering itinerary, a 513-mile backroad odyssey gathers an emotional momentum we’re grateful to experience.

The Ross brothers continue their exploration of docu-fiction here (more on that shortly). The five friends make their introductions by way of their school IDs popped onto the screen. Their names: Tony Aburto, Micah Bunch, Nichole Dukes, Nathaly Garcia and Makai Garza. “Gasoline Rainbow” chronicles their fortunes on the road, the chance encounters that take them to a bonfire gathering here, a truck stop there. Their destination: the Pacific Ocean, and a raging “End of the World” party somewhere on the coast they’ve heard about.

I’d rather not detail the encounters, other than to note the overnight crash pads and bull sessions offered by various relatives and newfound acquaintances. We come to know these three young, good-hearted men and two good-hearted young women as they drink, smoke, dance, skateboard and discover what it feels like to open up about their worry about what’s next. For all that, “Gasoline Rainbow” lets the story of their lives and this particular road-trip story go where it goes. I found the movie very moving, and often funny (discussion topics range from “The Lord of the Rings” to Enya), and not far in some respects from the roads taken by Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” and “Nomadland,” portraits of rootless or questing American spirits in a time without a compass.

And this is where we talk about what the movie is, and isn’t, and acknowledge that the Ross brothers make no bones about it.

Actor Marisa Abela, who portrays the late British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse in the new film, ‘Back to Black,’ says her aim in the movie was to portray the “human behind the icon.” Director Sam Taylor-Johnson says she tried to maintain authenticity in the film using very specific items and details.

“Gasoline Rainbow” is not a documentary. It’s fiction. The five central figures use the real names of the first-time actors playing versions of themselves, and a lot of what they talk about comes from their real lives and doubts and yearnings. But the narrative is an extended form of outlined and improvised imagination. The Ross brothers roughed out the idea in early 2020, an eyeblink before the pandemic; a little over a year later, in between pandemic lockdowns, they started filming with their cast members. Plenty of visual cues and tip-offs arrive early in “Gasoline Rainbow,” indicating the fictional/nonfictional blur afoot; an arresting shot, filmed (I think) from the front of the van, shooting inside, delights the eye while consciously or subconsciously telling you it’s not a documentary.

Neither was the Ross’s previous film “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” a ripe 2020 ensemble portrait of the regular customers of a Las Vegas dive bar on the evening of the 2016 Trump victory. Actors and non-actors alike created those parts, just as the five expressive and unerring amateurs fill out parallel versions of themselves in “Gasoline Rainbow.”

Also, regarding the town of Wiley: There isn’t a Wiley, not really. It’s fictional. So it really is a nowhere kind of town, literally.

The movie suggests something more interesting, I think, than 100% truth or 100% fiction. We’re all from somewhere; we all wonder if we’re doing it right, whatever “it” is. We all dream of freedom somehow tethered to our families, our friends, our sense of belonging. The Ross brothers belong to a long, coast-to-coast family of docu-fiction landmarks, from New York-set “On the Bowery” (1956) to Los Angeles-set “The Exiles” (1961).

See it, and see what you make of this new and quite wonderful example of this in-between cinematic tradition — and of Tony, Micah, Nichole, Nathaly and Makai, both real and imagined.

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“GASOLINE RAINBOW’

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

No MPA rating (language)

Running time: 1:48

Streaming on MUBI.com May 31

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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