PLOT: James (James Davison) wakes up in the middle of the woods, with only a vague memory of how he got there. He flashes back to his relationship with Sara (Sara Jones), a fresh-faced student, who's drawn into the wild, drug-crazed lifestyle of Jason and his friends. Sara begins to experiment heavily with psychotropic drugs, and she suggests to Jason that the two of them ingest heavy amounts of LSD, and visit “Toad Road”- a pathway with a vicious urban legend attached to it.
REVIEW: Of all the films to emerge from this year's Fantasia Film Fest, TOAD ROAD was the one that came in under the radar, and became a sleeper hit, having walked away with many of the fest's top awards. Having finally caught up with the film, after hearing a lot about it over the last few weeks, I can see why so many people found it striking.
For about 90% of the movie, TOAD ROAD doesn't seem like a genre film. It's more like BELLFLOWER, in that it follows around a gang of young adults, who party hard, experiment recklessly with drugs, and seem hellbent on self-destruction. Our lead, James- played by James Davidson (in verite-style, the actors mostly use their own names) gets by with financial support from his parents, who send him to a psychologist- who prods him about his extreme lifestyle.
From there, we spend a lot of time following Jason and his crew from one party to another. Finally he meets Sara, an ambitious, straight-arrow student, who's quickly swept up in their lifestyle. If I have a problem with TOAD ROAD, it's that I found it a stretch to think Sara would find their lifestyle attractive, but then again, from my own wilder days I've seen such things happen.
This early part of the movie is very much in the tradition of directors like Larry Clark, with a messy, mostly unattractive look at what a life-fuelled by partying and drugs is actually like. But- TOAD ROAD takes an extreme turn once Sara develops a fascination with LSD, with her reading up on Timothy Leary, and other Acid-fanatics. She seems to think she's found the tool that's going to expand her mind, and after hearing Jason tell her the legend of Toad Road- the supposed site of the seven gates of hell, she thinks that it's her destiny to walk it's path while on acid.
This part of the film only kicks in around the forty-minute mark, and as it runs only 75 minutes, not a heck of a lot of time is spent on TOAD ROAD, and the experience shared by Jason and Sara is only revealed to us in the occasional horrific flash. As such, TOAD ROAD is probably only for the more patient genre fans, but it's intriguing enough that your patience will be well rewarded.
Director/writer Jason Banker deserves a lot of credit, having done this on a shoe-string with consumer grade DV cameras. Despite the financial and technical limitations, Banker nonetheless infuses TOAD ROAD with some striking imagery, and the location work is particularly good, with the hopeless, hole-in-the-wall town of York, where this takes place, having a unique, Gothic look that adds immensely to the film. The minimalist soundtrack is also incredibly effective.
I'm really curious to see if TOAD ROAD ends up finding an audience beyond Fantasia, but I think it should, and probably will. It's certainly well-worth tracking down for those genre fans who like to see more unusual, deconstructive takes on familiar, well-worn genre conventions. It's an intriguing seventy-five minutes, and something that will stick in your head for awhile afterwards.