Written & Directed by Terry Sanders
There’s an erroneous statement that life was easier in the past, just as much as it’s wrong to claim life is easier now. California in the sixties was far from the golden state some outside of America perceived it to be, with worries of war, austerity, and drugs. There’s, however, one growing expressive freedom, that of ‘free love’ and an opening up of the views concerning women and young people’s bodies and sexuality. In part a tribute to Romeo & Juliet, Terry Sanders‘ road-trip love story ‘Liza, Liza, Skies Are Gray’ (2015) may begin with a bumpy journey, but quickly finds a poetic speed-setting on the open roads.
Unsure of what the future may bring, high schoolers Liza and Brett come to the decision that before the draft for the Vietnam war they intend on being one another’s ‘first-time’. Whisking themselves on a cross-state tour to spend time together before separating, the pair hop aboard Brett’s motorcycle for the golden beaches, dense mountain terrain and endless dirt roads California offers. Encountering friendly locals, a few skirmishes and a sleazy motel owner, the trip quickly becomes a coming-of-age tale as the two evolve more than just in the physical way they had hoped for.
Steadily growing in charm, ‘Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey’ propels itself once the journey aspect of the film begins. Where the pacing has been problematic, suddenly time is taken to build the relationship and chemistry the pair share, which by the film’s end, is fully tangible and investing, more than first impressions would have suggested. Notably, this is down to Mikey Madison‘s accessible performance, which is devoid of cheap antics or thrills. Madison’s performance develops, and her character gains confidence as the film unfolds, and is a genuinely wholesome performance in its authenticity as a teenage girl struggling with new love, virginity and a society commodifying having sex young.
With a surprising core of sincerity, Sander’s writing breathes an extraordinary level of intrigue into this teen relationship, far more than one may feel in the film’s opening. It cannot be lessened that the opening of the film leaves a lot to be desired, with shocking pacing and scripting issues which plaster many characters as one-note, but this is all fodder before the main chunk of the film which at its heart centres on Liza and Brett.
Attempting to infuse elements of Shakespeare, Greek mythos and 60’s Road Movies, Sander’s litters the narrative with cutaways and road bumps the cast didn’t need to drive empathy. Sean H. Scully’s Brett suffers the most from this, as the frequent character turns he takes to bolster his growing aggression and irritation with the world don’t develop naturally, and instead are forced upon him.
The film works best when it openly demonstrates growth – the key example being when Liza and Brett are attacked, and the only person to stop is an older black-woman who merely asks that one day they ‘do the same for her one day’, a reference to the film’s setting of sixties America as segregation was (very) slowly unravelling.
Similarly, to this infusion of inspirations, Erik Daarstad’s cinematography takes and borrows from a variety of techniques – unfortunately, this doesn’t always blend well. Many of the up-close internal shots, particularly in vehicles, are achieved with what are presumably Go-Pros resulting in choppy framing. Where the film works best in a visual sense is in Jennifer Seeley’s art direction which demonstrates the location shots magnificently, greatly aided by the lighting and colour palette.
An eclectic mix of techniques and inspirations, ‘Liza, Liza, Skies Are Grey’ bloats itself despite having the necessary components for a superb film of its own volition. Sander’s script is more concerned with emulating a neo-Romeo & Juliet than forging a path for these characters under their autonomy, resulting in an engaging film which stumbles along the path where it should be gliding.
Review originally published for In Their Own League