Toad Road is an urban legend; a mythic trail residing in the woods of York, Pennsylvania. It is said to house the seven gates leading to hell, and any unfortunate pedestrian traveling this path at night will travel through each gate individually. Sarah (Sarah Joelle Hildebrand) is fascinated by this myth upon hearing of its existence from her new boyfriend James. Point of fact, Sarah has been experiencing many new things thanks to her new beau; not the least of which being a veritable buffet of hard drugs. She gets it into her head that sucking down a narcotic cocktail and traipsing into these woods after dark will allow her to achieve a higher form of consciousness. Unfortunately, like many ideas one concocts while in an altered state, her plan goes horribly awry.
There is a perception in certain circles that films made by those who attend film school are inherently smarter, more artful, and requiring of a more refined palate to appreciate. While there certainly are films that fall under this distinction, the danger of that mentality is that it gives rise to a wave of lackluster fluff masquerading under these intellectual pretenses. Enter Toad Road, which had its world premiere at Fantasia Fest. Toad Road is an empty vessel, a thinly-veiled metaphor explored a hundred times before with nowhere near as much new to bring to the table as it desperately believes it possesses. Oh, really, delving into drug addiction is similar to descending into hell? How novel.
But having familiar themes does not inherently make a film bad, not by a long shot. Instead, what strikes such a raw nerve with regarding Toad Road is its unabashed amateurism. Granted, this is a festival movie that had a shoestring budget, and therefore would usually warrant the benefit of the doubt, but the lack of care taken in areas where money presents no restriction is maddening. Actors look at the camera, no second take is attempted. Things are not properly lit, and living rooms purporting to be psychologists offices are not even made to look like anything but living rooms. The most egregious is the scene in which Sarah and James (James Davidson) playfully wrestle in the park, and her mic pack is visible several times in her back pocket. If you know you’re going to mic your actors this way, why have them wrestle on the ground? Why not shoot around it? For god’s sake, the director used to be a cinematographer and can’t figure out a proper angle and framing?
Bonehead snafus like this notwithstanding, it’s clear director Jason Banker‘s background is in cinematography, and there are plenty of beautiful shots. The problem is that this film is far more concerned with creating avant-garde imagery than it is at telling a story. Like our two main characters, the plot of this film is utterly lost in the woods. We spend copious amounts of time with aimless, tragically hip teens wasting their youth to illustrate the subversive idea that aimless, tragically hip teens sometimes waste their youth. The problem is that we don’t even learn most of these kids’ names nor are we given any insight into who they are beyond the fact that they are junkies. It’s not bold to simply show us rebellious youth culture anymore.
Meanwhile, when we finally get to the titular path, all the possible supernatural foreboding is squandered by the fact that we know how many chemicals and powders these kids have ingested. It’s not a genre film anymore when the most likely explanation for the inciting tragedy is most assuredly natural, albeit chemical. Any sense of tension in this scene has effectively gone up in smoke.
The dialogue, what little it wasn’t ad libbed, is the most self-indulgent, meaningless arthouse nonsense possible. It’s almost parodic. “I met a guy once who told me about a place that contained the seven gates that lead to hell. I thought that it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.” Really?
The fallacy here is that Toad Road seems to be convinced that it has accomplished something far more philosophically and artistically substantial than the meager effort put into it could ever yield. Again, this is a small film, and it’s Banker’s first feature, so bashing it might seem unnecessary, but there is potential in him as an artist if he can get beyond creating trite, subpar chores.