As many amateur cooks are now discovering, spices are best used in moderation. The same can definitely be said of quirkiness, the overuse of which is a problem afflicting many first-time filmmakers. That’s certainly the case for writer-director Sean McEwan’s feature debut about a road trip undertaken by two dysfunctional siblings. Indeed, its very title has the unfortunate effect of setting one’s nerves on edge. While there’s a potentially moving emotional component at the heart of Braking for Whales, it’s buried amid a sea of plot eccentricities that don’t pay off.
Another problem is that the film is a coming-of-age story of sorts, which would be fine except its central characters should have come of age a long time ago. They are 30-something Brandon (Tom Felton, who played Draco in all eight Harry Potter films) and his older sister Star (Tammin Sursok, Pretty Little Liars, who also co-scripted with her husband, McEwan). The pair are reunited upon the death of their mother, who, judging by the bizarre assemblage of bric-a-brac in her dwelling, was apparently obsessed with whales.
Runs out of comedic gas early on.
That obsession extends to the mother’s will, which includes a directive that her children not receive their inheritance unless they find a final resting place for her ashes in the belly of a whale. So to fulfill her request the two promptly get into their mom’s Winnebago for a lengthy road trip, one that gives them plenty of time to work out their personal problems. She’s suffering from stunted emotional maturity, which led to her abandoning her child, and has a bizarre sexual fixation on George W. Bush. He’s in denial about his gayness, which clashes with his strong religious beliefs.
Having these deep emotional issues arise out of the absurd maternal request could have made for a clever, funny and touching dramedy, but instead the film gravitates toward satirical touches that don’t work. One lengthy scene that particularly falls flat involves the siblings’ encounter with their highly conservative aunt and uncle, played by comedy veterans David Koechner (Anchorman) and Wendi McLendon-Covey (The Goldbergs), whose formidable talents are not enough to rise above the material. Dressed in matching outfits, the characters have a shrine to Star’s idol, Bush, in their house and a Mexican foster child. Neither plot element produces the intended laughs, despite a would-be outrageous moment in which Star pleasures herself to an image of the former president. (The film’s obsession with Bush, which includes a scene in which Star has an encounter with the bemused presidential object of her desire in a convenience store, proves as bizarre as the mother’s with whales.)
The film also has trouble maintaining a tone, with Brandon’s tortured struggle with his sexuality not consistent with the lighthearted mood of the rest of the proceedings. One moment he’s having a violent encounter with a man who tries to pick him up a bar, and not long afterward he and his sister are rescuing an adorable pair of otter pups after accidentally running over the animals’ mother on the highway.
Felton and Sursok have good chemistry, with the latter displaying a sharp comic energy. But they’re ultimately unable to make us really care about their troubled characters, who are never as engaging as the film seems to think they are. By the time the siblings arrive at a Texas aquarium to attempt to fulfill their mission, Braking for Whales has long since come to a narrative halt.
Available on VOD/Digital Platforms
Production: Narrator Entertainment, Charlie Baby Productions
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Tammin Sursok, Tom Felton, Wendi McLendon-Covey, David Koechner, Austin Swift
Director: Sean McEwen
Screenwriters: Sean McEwen, Tammin Sursok
Producers: Sean McEwen, Tammin Sursok, Cassidy Lunnen
Executive producer: Takashi Cheng
Director of photography: Justin Henning
Production designer: Colin Warde
Costume designer: Jillian Bundrick
Editor: Andrew S. Eisen
Composer: Jason Soudah
Casting: John Papsidera