Hoping to convince his wife that a promotion across the country could change their lives, Brian takes her on a trip to a faded resort town where they once honeymooned. We take a look at Michael Stevantoni’s Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea happens to be the largest lake in California, created by flooding in 1905 when excessive water caused the Colorado River to spill over into man-made irrigation channels, it poured into a 40 mile flatbed of pure desert.
Fifty years later the land was pounced on by developers and turned into a paradise resort for tourists and holidaymakers. Christened ‘The Salton Riviera’ thousands of people flocked to the ‘sea’ every weekend. That was until the 1970′s when it was discovered that waste from the local towns huge agricultural industry was poisoning the water and creating hydrogen sulfide gas, the very same poison gas used as a deadly weapon during the First World War. The Salton Riviera then deteriorated into a ghost town, containing nothing but empty property, swamped in dead fish and dead bird carcasses.
The Salton Sea is a fascinating story in itself but Michael Stevantoni’s Salton Sea is a relationship drama that uses the Salton as merely a backdrop for the words and actions of its main characters. The unusual location leads to some stunning cinematography from Tom Taugher of vast empty spaces framing the drama and dialogue scenes.
The symbolism of The Salton is there for all to see. A once thriving resort now a fractured corpse of its former self, much like the relationship of our protagonists Brian and Ramona. Having been married for a while, they now take each other for granted. There is a saying that people get married because they want a witness to their lives and this may provide some insight into the troubled life of Brian (played by Joel Bissonette) – a working-class guy old before his years. He is offered a promotion that means a lot of upheaval for his young family, but he is so tired from life that he doesn’t have the energy needed to convince others its a good move. Meanwhile, his wife Ramona, Kaylor Leigh, is just seemingly tired with their relationship. It’s a coupling that throws up more than a few questions. Did Brian and Ramona get married because they wanted to be sure someone was watching them? Or was that just Brian’s need? Has Ramona lost interest in the watching?
Writer/director Michael Stevantoni invites us to spectate his characters’ relationship. The film is alive with nuance and familial details. Ramona still loves Brian but can’t remember why she married him. Whereas Brian loves Ramona but is unable to help her find those memories. The physical and emotional exhaustion of looking for something that maybe isn’t there any more takes its toll on Brian far more than it does Ramona. He is desperate to keep Ramona as his wife and partner, which he feels was the deal they both made, but Ramona wanted more from this life and also her husband. It’s his infuriating inability to care for her that is the problem
Both Joel Bissonnette and Keylor Leigh give lovely performances; the relationship between the two feels real and truthful. Leigh plays a woman who sits inside her body and no longer knows what it’s for or what she wants to do with it. While Bissonnette has the more showy role of the desperate husband trying to keep his marriage and career from falling apart while also playing a jack the lad – lazily searching for former glories and not trying hard to keep his marriage alive after all.
Every movie relationship tends to have milestone moments but what Salton Sea does well is avoiding those convenient cliches and happy ever afters. It’s not a film about hope but rather a film about inner defeat and the exhaustion of hope and it is this that makes Salton Sea a far more interesting and much more truthful relationship drama than it has any right to be. Catch it if you can.