The story sounds simple, and infinitely cool.
Teenage girl Hazel (Bella Thorne) suffers from a crippling case of agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces. She's scheduled to visit a treatment facility, but on a normal day she can barely get out of her room, much less down the stairs and into a car. Her frustrated mother (Kyra Sedgwick), however, has managed to arrange for a transport, where Hazel can lie in the back, in a closed box, so she can get where she's going without having another seizure. Her mother comes along for the ride, as well as a few other patients. Along the way there's an accident. Hazel is fine, but everybody else is killed, and her mother is mortally wounded. There are no cell phones in the car, the road they traveled is isolated, so no one is going to come by and help them, leaving Hazel in a crushingly simple, yet impossible situation: If she wants her mother to survive she'll have to venture into the open dessert herself to get help.
Like I said: A simple and cool story. It's not like the goal of the plot isn't obvious - Hazel must confront her demons and overcome them - but it's the kind of story where I could enjoy the ride, knowing full well what the destination is going to be. I could, if the film delivers on the promise, of course.
There are two big weak links in Big Sky.
The first one is Bella Thorne. This is the kind of role a serious actor would do a ton of research for, to be absolutely sure they had the manic behavior of an agoraphobe down to a T. Thorne doesn't look like she did any research. She either hides behind her hair, or groans like a teenage girl who has just been told she must be home by 9. When she attempts to show Hazel struggling with her sickness she sounds like she's trying to parallel-park a car for the first time ("I can DO this!"), rather than dealing with serious mental issues.
The second big problem is the script. The story is poorly told and manages to make a mess of a crystal clear, simple premise in a spectacular way. The story is padded with needless storylines, some of which are inexplicably dropped along the way, never to be referred to again. Several solid plot lines remain unexplored, while other hastily introduced ones are allowed to take over the film.
For example: We've got some bad guys with a complicated plan, one of them is a completely retarded (yes actually retarded) young man, who can't be left alone for a second before he shoots somebody or tries to rape them, and yet for some reason the other bad guy (Frank Grillo, putting in a decent performance) constantly leaves him alone to create more problems. I was left yelling at the screen in frustration at times. Meanwhile Hazels mother is bleeding out in the car, but don't worry, her situation will remain unchanged for most of the film. And by the way, how about giving Hazel some sort of deadline ("you gotta get back before the sun goes down"), or at least a sense that the mother's situation is worsening? Nope. She just sits there and bleeds like a stuck pig. Worse yet, she literally spends hours pointing a gun at a bad guy who's afraid to move. Just pointing a gun at him. And he doesn't move. And she doesn't move. She just points that gun.
When the film gets to the big finale we're left with a lackluster shootout that plays out between characters we've barely met, and largely off screen. I think the filmmakers think they've shown us some sort of emotional journey, where Hazel has confronted her demons, and come out on the other side. In actuality Hazel's journey consists of her stumbling through the dessert, stuffing herself with pills, talking to a cactus and getting saved by strangers. We're not sure how long time she's walked or how far she's gone. At one point we're told Hazel is several miles away from her starting point, but if you had asked me, I would have guessed she had barely moved a quarter of a mile, and that she could still see the car, but I guess not. We never get the sense that Hazel faces her problems and overcomes them, she just stumbles along, a slave to the whim of other characters and her pills. The whole idea was that the crisis Hazel is facing would shake her up and push her forward, but honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if she was back in her room the next day, afraid to go out again. And then what's the point of the whole thing, right?
I love discovering little gems - barely released films that no one has heard of - and championing them. I really wish Big Sky had been one such film. Unfortunately it's not. Rather, it's one of those films where it's obvious why it was dumped on VOD platforms with little or no fanfare. It just doesn't deserve any better.