Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Big Bend is surprisingly sweet and brimming with love, not at all what I had anticipated from the darkness of the premise. In fact, I would go so far as to say its description for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival tells the viewer absolutely nothing about the main plot of the movie. Family dynamics aside, The Big Bend is a powerfully-acted drama that uses the jaw-dropping backdrop of Texas to accentuate character struggles and emotions.

Cory (Jason Butler Harner) and Melanie (Virginia Kull) are headed deep into the Texas desert to meet up with their close friends, the Talbot family. As Cory’s birthday approaches, he simply wants to celebrate with tequila, but Mac (David Sullivan), the Talbot patriarach, has a different kind of week in mind. The two families, including their kids who are more interested in reviving seemingly-dead toads and playing Fortnite, enjoy one another’s company with reckless abandon. Eventually, the two women, Melanie and Georgia (Erica Ash), stay behind for a day of rejuvenating mudbaths and relaxation. Mac and Cory journey out into the sweltering, beautiful desert to go for a memorable hike with their children—“a taste of the real Texas,” Mac promises.

The ominous warning of no cell service and the use of walkie-talkies means something is coming, but it is a strange drifter named Karl (Nick Masciangelo) with one white eyebrow fleeing from border patrol who seems poised to cause trouble. While I will not spoil anything specific, I was ultimately surprised with how this man ties into the story. Cory’s daughter, Fiona (Delilah Wagner), shares the most screen time with Karl, and this team-up is a delightful highlight of the film.

Mac and Melanie have a big secret hanging over them that they are not sure about divulging to the Talbots. The juxtaposition of these two couples is interesting to observe, and remains intriguing throughout. Whilst Cory and Melanie maintain a sizzling sexual relationship years into their marriage, Georgia and Mac are not as lucky. Georgia is feeling neglected and like a lesser priority in their sexless existence. The Talbots instead are financially stable, and slowly building their wealth and prestige. They own twenty acres of land around the house they have fixed up, and are looking towards a future where they can rent the property to make a steady profit.

The vastness of the valley stretches out before both families, brimming with possibilities. An ending that presents as both tragic and poignant forces the viewer to reassess everything that came before. My favorite thing about The Big Bend is the foreshadowing and subversion of expectations present in the script. The conversations between both couples feels genuine and smart, and the Texas beauty on display (particularly in terms of the mountainous vistas) is stunning. Written and directed by Brett Wagner, this sun-burned familial drama emerges as an early contender for one of my favorites of 2022. It may only be a “taste of Texas,” but The Big Bend is poised as a worthy display of Wagner’s talents as a filmmaker.

The Big Bend screened at the 2022 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

4 thoughts on “SBIFF 2022: The Big Bend

  1. Completely disagree with your assessment about what I felt was a contrived, overly-coincidental story line and amateurish acting, by players who telegraphed every emotion. The kids were really cute and the most natural actors in the film, and I agree that scenery was vast and lovely. Saw it today at the SBFilm Fest.

  2. I saw this film in Santa Barbara this weekend, and I thought it was lovely! Beautifully shot, well acted by a fantastic cast, and very touching. I especially appreciated all of the honest moments of connection between the two families, and the way information was withheld and revealed over the course of the film. And the still you shared above was one of my favorite moments! Looking forward to seeing more from this director 🙂

  3. Beautiful review. Saw this in Santa Barbara this weekend and was similarly struck by the heart (and comedy!) which I didn’t expect. I feel like so many family dramas I have seen at festivals delve so deep into the shock value and darkness that they traumatize their audience and abandon character altogether. At every turn Big Bend had authentic moments between friends and family as the heart of each scene. Beautifully acted, beautifully directed! Reminded me of Chloé Zhao’s “THE RIDER” — authentic human connections with the landscape also serving as a character.

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