October 23, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Van Ditthavong
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Texas, the crime drama “All Roads to Pearla” has a predominantly white cast (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: A senior in high school falls for a prostitute, who gets him mixed up in her criminal activities.
Culture Audience: “All Roads to Pearla” will appeal primarily to people who like non-linear, muddled, noirish dramas with vague endings.
The crime drama “All Roads to Pearla” begins with an ambiguous scene and ends on an ambiguous scene. If you hate movies that end on a cliffhanger, and there’s almost no chance that the movie is getting a sequel, then it’s best to avoid watching “All Roads to Pearla.” It’s a movie that tries very hard to be gritty and sleek at the same time, yet it comes up short when it comes to overall storytelling.
“All Roads to Pearla” (formerly titled “Sleeping in Plastic”) is the first feature film from writer/director Van Ditthavong, who uses a lot of quick-cutting, back-and-forth editing techniques to attempt to make the story more of a mystery than it actually is and to give the movie a more suspenseful tone. Just as viewers get settled into watching what’s going on in a scene, the movie cuts away to show what’s happening at the same time somewhere else. There are also many flashbacks, so viewers have to pay attention to piece together the whole story. But even then, the puzzle ends up incomplete. What the movie really comes down to is a not-very-original concept of a young man who’s led astray by a femme fatale.
The movie’s protagonist is Brandon Bell (played by Alex MacNicoll), who’s in his last year at Lakeside High School in an unnamed suburb in Texas. Brandon is a wrestler on the school’s team, which is led by tough-but-motivational Coach Baker (played by Nick Chinlund), who considers Brandon to be a one of the best members of the team. Brandon is a loner who has an unhappy home life: His father abandoned the family, his younger brother has died, and his emotionally abusive, alcoholic mother Pearla (played by Morgana Shaw) blames Brandon for everything that’s gone wrong in her life.
The movie opens with a naked teenage boy running through a field into an open road and getting accidentally hit and killed by a car. Who is this boy and why was he running naked outside? The movie takes a long and muddled time to get some answers to that question, but the film is mainly preoccupied with showing Brandon’s dangerous attraction to a local prostitute whose name also happens to be the same as his mother’s: Pearla.
When Brandon first meets Pearla (played by Addison Timlin), who’s about the same age as Brandon, he doesn’t know that she’s a sex worker. He sees her while they’re both in a grocery store, and their eyes briefly lock in the way that indicates there’s an immediate attraction between them. After Brandon leaves with his grocery items and gets in his truck to leave, Pearla approaches him and starts up a flirtatious conversation with Brandon.
He’s so awed by her that he doesn’t even ask what her name is, but he tells her his name. She asks Brandon if he wants to make some easy money: For $50, she wants Brandon to give her a ride to “meet a friend” and wait for her for about an hour. It sounds suspicious, and Brandon doesn’t say yes right away. However, he and Pearla exchange phone numbers in case he changes his mind.
Someone at the grocery store who’s noticed this attraction between Brandon and Pearla is a cashier named Ellie (played by Paige McGarvin), who happens to be a classmate of Brandon’s. The next day in school, Ellie warns Brandon to stay away from the teenage girl he met in the parking lot. Ellie tells Brandon that this girl is a troublemaker who was caught shoplifting in the store and her reaction at getting caught was to throw a violent temper tantrum. Ellie doesn’t sugarcoat what she thinks of this mystery wild child: “She’s crazy.”
Brandon’s response is to ask Ellie on a date to go to the movies with him. But it’s clear from the time that Ellie and Brandon spend together that although she might be romantically attracted to him, he only wants her to be his platonic friend. Brandon is very intrigued by the girl he met in the grocery store parking lot, so he calls her and agrees to be her driver for the agreed-upon fee.
When they meet for the second time, Brandon asks her what her name is. When she tells him her name is Pearla, he mentions the strange coincidence that his mother’s name is also Pearla. Brandon makes it clear that he doesn’t have a good relationship with his mother. Pearla also comes from a broken home and she’s an only child. She has a cocaine habit, but Brandon doesn’t indulge in any drug taking when Pearl offers him some coke.
Brandon quickly figures out, based on Pearla’s instructions, that she’s a prostitute. When he asks her directly if she’s a hooker, all she will say is “I help people sleep at night.” After she comes back from the first place where Brandon dropped her off, she asks him to make two more stops. He’s reluctant at first, until she increases her payment to $100.
At one of the stops, Brandon finds out that he knows one of Pearla’s customers because he immediately recognizes the house where this person lives. Brandon becomes a Peeping Tom and looks in the bedroom window where Pearla and the customer are. And this customer has a dirty secret that Brandon discovers, because he can see what’s about to happen with this customer and Pearla before the lights get turned off.
When the sex session is over, the customer goes outside the house and sees that Brandon is Pearla’s driver. The customer and Brandon both look at each other that says in an unspoken way, “We both know this secret. Now what are you going to do about it?” Later, when Brandon sees this person again and tries to mention what he saw that night, the other person pretends that it didn’t even happen.
Meanwhile, Pearla is definitely not a “hooker with a heart of gold.” She’s in cahoots with her pimp Oz Bacco (played by Dash Mihok) and Oz’s muscleman Teddy (played by Marcus M. Mauldin) to rob her clients. After she ends a sex session with a client, who is usually caught off guard, she makes sure the door is unlocked so that Oz and Teddy can immediately invade the place and rob the client.
In the beginning of the movie, this type of robbery takes place at motel where Cowboy Loy (played Corin Nemec), one of Pearla’s customers, is robbed and assaulted by Oz and Teddy, who wear full face masks during these crimes. Their assault is so brutal that they nail one of Cowboy Loy’s hands to a dresser. But the money that was stolen in this robbery came from the business owned by Cowboy Loy and his business partner Mamo (played Tina Parker), and they’re both hell-bent on getting revenge. It’s pretty easy to see at this point where the movie is going to go.
Brandon and Pearla become lovers, and he gets more caught up in trying to be her protector, even though he’s aware that his life could be in danger. Brandon doesn’t have any specific goals on what he wants to do with his life after high school. He’s contemplating a possible move to El Paso to work on an oil rig, since he knows someone in El Paso who’s in that line of work. When he mentions it to Pearla, she says she would like to move to El Paso with him too if she can get enough money.
When someone like Pearla tells someone like Brandon, “I love you,” she doesn’t really mean it. It’s just her way of saying what Brandon wants to hear so that she can further manipulate him into doing what she wants. Brandon naïvely thinks that this prostitute with a cocaine addiction and a domineering pimp will just be able quit her criminal activities and move to El Paso with him when the time is right. But criminals like Pearla and Oz are too addicted to making money through illegal activity to suddenly “go straight.” Will Brandon be collateral damage?
Although “All Roads to Pearla” starts out promising, the movie quickly devolves in the last third of the story into a violent mess. MacNicoll and Timlin are very good in their roles as mismatched lovers Brandon and Pearla, but the movie’s supporting characters are written and performed as two-dimensional characters or borderline caricatures. Mihok as Oz is particularly over-the-top in his villainous role, but in an annoying way, not an entertaining way.
And about the sexual secret that Brandon knows about that’s very scandalous: The person who has the secret reacts in a fairly predictable way when it looks like someone might reveal this secret. “All Roads to Pearla” tries to go for a modern noir vibe, but it mishandles the “mystery” elements of the story with too many confusing flashbacks and that still don’t tell enough of a backstory to make this a well-rounded thriller.
The best scenes in the movie are those that involve Brandon’s dysfunctional home life. A vicious verbal argument that Brandon has with his mother is well-acted and very realistic. And there are hints, but not enough disclosure, about the death of Brandon’s younger brother that has caused so much turmoil in his family. The romance between Brandon and Pearla is utterly predictable because it’s been done so many other times before in movies that have femme fatales who lure gullible men into a life of crime.
Sometimes a movie’s mediocre acting or choppy direction can be forgiven if the overall story is intriguing and told in an original way. But it’s hard to like a movie that leaves major issues unresolved by the end of the film. In that respect, “All Roads to Pearla” is a movie that ends up leaving viewers feeling stranded and conned.
Gravitas Ventures released “All Roads to Pearla” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on September 25, 2020.