‘Southbounders’ DVD Review
In the 10th Anniversary DVD release of indie docu-drama Southbounders, writer/director Ben Wagner brings the audience into his own world, the world of the long-distance hiker.
The movie follows Olivia (Amy Cale Peterson) as she attempts to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, a 2,170-mile journey that takes about 6 months. While the majority of hikers start in Georgia and end in Maine, hikers known as northbounders, Olivia hikes against the current as a southbounder, a hiker who reverses the route.
Starting out alone, Olivia is quickly joined by the chatty and annoying Slackpack (Christopher McCutchen). Despite her attempts to ditch him, Slackpack sticks around. Eventually the two catch up with the mysterious and handsome hiker known as Rollin (Scott Speiser), whose notes in the trail’s shelter registers have been catching Olivia’s eye.
The three hikers continue on together, and Olivia wrestles with her reasons for hiking the trail and whether or not she will finish in time to return to medical school.
As a hiker who completed his own hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1999, Wagner’s movie brings the audience into this tight-knit community of thru-hikers, those who finish the trail in one marathon journey. The shelters and registers, each hiker’s trail name, boarding houses and carefully planned mail drops are all elements of a culture hidden away from civilization.
The cast of characters who embrace that culture are also well-represented. Slackpack doles out unsolicited advice to everyone he comes across. Rollin is the handsome hiker poet: aloof, quiet and full of pseudo-deep thoughts.
According to the movie’s website, thru-hikers met during production on the trail were worked into the final movie. This authenticity shines through to the point that Southbounders begins to feel more like a documentary and less scripted. This earnest insight into the community and the beautiful background of the trail are the movie’s strongest points.
The story of Olivia herself, though promising at first, falls by the wayside of sweeping scenes of forest and mountains. Flashbacks meant to give insight into what she’s running from or searching for only leave the audience with more questions. At the climax, when she’s finally confronted with whether to finish the trail or not, Olivia’s explanations for her decision are empty and unsatisfactory.
Rollin is another mystery that remains unsolved. He holds his motives as close as the journal in which he spends most of his time writing and never really lets go.
The inevitable love story between Rollin and Olivia is again set up strongly, but both players’ interests seem inconsistent. However, the hottie hiker-poet does not disappoint at the end with a final romantic gesture.
While the cinematography, story and pacing all reflect the isolation and lazy monotony that can be long-distance hiking, moments of humor brighten the story. Whether it’s the struggles with wildlife, quirky “natural” hikers, or Slackpack’s struggling and incessant chit chat, all give the audience much needed moments of laughter, a feeling hikers most certainly encounter when the blisters burn and muscles ache.
The strongest performance comes from McCutchen who sells Olivia and the audience on the charm behind the at-first-annoying Slackpack. He is the movie’s loveable guide, and his presence keeps things light and interesting.
While the story guiding the movie’s main characters may be weak, Southbounders is a sincere and authentic portrayal of the thru-hiker community. Through the eyes of Olivia, the audience gets to know and love this culture and its people. As Wagner’s homage to this community, Southbounders excels.