During a business trip to Astoria, Oregon, Aaron is caught in the middle of a huge Earthquake that forces him to make his way back home on foot. Unsure of what he will find or even if he will survive the trip, we follow him on his 725-mile journey to Portland. This is Paul Bright’s docudrama, Crossing Shaky Ground.
I don’t know a great deal about the town of Astoria except that it is on the north-west coast of America and located in Oregon, the next state up from California. I also knew that Astoria was where ‘The Goonies’ was filmed and my recollections are that it seemed to be an amazingly beautiful yet mysterious place that looked perfect for groups of kids to live in and go on wild adventures together.
A major fact I didn’t know about Oregon is that the people of the Pacific North-West live in constant fear of The Great Cascadia Quake which, according to all available scientific evidence, is a massive earthquake that reaches an 8 or 9 on the Richter scale and hits this region every 500 years or so. The last one struck there in January 1700 and caused a tsunami so powerful that it reached all the way to Japan. Now in the year 2020, we are entering into the realms of genuine probability.
Paul Bright’s Crossing Shaky Ground is a ‘what if’ road movie that tells the story of The Great Cascadia Quake hitting the area and how its aftermath affects all of the people who live and work there. Our cipher into this scenario is Aaron, played by Sean McCarty, who is a disaster preparedness expert from out of town. Aaron is in Astoria providing classes on, ironically, how to survive earthquakes, when he is caught up in the big quake itself. Left with no transport and very little money, he makes a decision to travel hundreds of miles on foot to get home.
Along the way, he meets a number of different survivors who each have their own beliefs, issues, problems, and ticks. Bright sees his film as a piece of cinema verite, so his script has a basic story outline that enables him to stick to a through-line of action, yet the dialogue between actors is improvised by the cast. As with all types of performance, some of the actors are better at improv than others, but the real standouts are McCarty’s Aaron and Jonas Israel’s Ben who not only improvise some excellent scenes together but are also able to make the dialogue sound natural, spontaneous and completely true to their characters.
The film is punctuated with talking-head style interviews by supporting characters that, according to Bright, are re-enacted true confessions from the neglected people of rural Oregon who he interviewed for over a year. Bright attempts to weave these issues into his film by having the same people appear along Aaron’s journey where he can allow the improvised exchanges to reveal character. It’s an interesting method that reaps dividends when everyone is thrown in together, as that enables Bright and his cast to shine a light on each newcomer’s different beliefs and moral codes.
The cinematography mainly consists of wide shots and close-ups but Bright uses a lot of handheld shaky-cam action to follow his actors. This helps to give the film a certain kinetic energy and sense of immediacy but the low budget becomes apparent whenever there is a quake or an aftershock because these same shaky-cam moments end up reminding you of explosions in old Star Trek episodes.
Crossing Shaky Ground is an admirable effort from an enthusiastic cast and crew that offers up some very good scenes, and insights into the mysteries of the human condition and how we deal with a disaster.