October 11, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Marc Carlini
Culture Representation: Taking place in California, Oregon and suburban Washington, D.C., the romantic drama “She’s in Portland” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two former college classmates in their mid-30s—one who’s a married father and the other who’s an available bachelor—go on a road trip to track down a bachelorette who knew them from college and who might be interested in dating the bachelor.
Culture Audience: “She’s in Portland” will appeal primarily to people who like realistic relationship dramas with touches of comedy.
If people wonder where are all the good movies about male bonding that don’t involve action-packed stunts, war combat or juvenile comedy, then point them in the direction of “She’s in Portland,” a gem of a film that deserves to be discovered. Directed with appealing charm by Marc Carlini (who co-wrote the screenplay with Patrick Alexander), “She’s in Portland” doesn’t strike a false note throughout the entire film. It’s not a perfect movie, but it has an authenticity that’s refreshing when movies too often portray men as caricatures or as people who do extraordinary things that require huge suspensions of disbelief. “She’s in Portland” is also about the pitfalls of having “grass is greener” envy about other people’s lives, when in reality those other people might have problems that aren’t enviable at all.
“She’s in Portland” is Carlini’s feature-film debut, and if the movie seems very realistic, that’s because it’s loosely based on some of Carlini’s real-life experiences. According to the production notes for “She’s in Portland,” Carlini, who has years of experiences as a film/video editor, was single and in his 30s when he was presented with a chance to reconnect with a bachelorette who was a former college classmate. He and the woman had a brief flirtation in college that could’ve ended up as a romantic relationship, but it didn’t. He then had to decide if it was worth it to see if that mutual attracted still existed.
That’s the dilemma facing Luke (played by Francois Arnaud), a bachelor in his mid-30s who works as an underpaid and underappreciated music video editor in Los Angeles. Luke is the passive “beta male” in this story about a longtime friendship between two men who met when they attended the same college together. The assertive “alpha male” in this friendship is Wes Hill (played by Tommy Dewey), a seemingly confident venture capitalist who has what most people consider to be the American Dream.
Wes lives in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., and he makes enough money to afford a comfortably upscale home. Wes is a smooth talker with a “take charge” personality, which is one of the reasons why he’s successful in his job. He has a beautiful wife named Sarah (played by Minka Kelly), who was his college sweetheart and who clearly adores him. Wes and Sarah are parents to a daughter who is nearly 2 years old. They are all healthy and seemingly happy.
But Wes is feeling bored and restless in his marriage. And it doesn’t help that Sarah’s parents—Dennis (played by Robin Gammell) and Joan (played by Elaine Partnow)—live in the same house. The first sign that Wes is feeling discontent in his home life is early on in the movie, when Dennis criticizes a defensive Wes over not getting a household repair done in the way that Dennis would’ve liked.
It’s clear that there’s tension between Wes and Dennis, probably because Wes doesn’t feel like he’s the real head of the household, as long as his father-in-law Dennis is there. Wes also isn’t sure if his wife Sarah would take Wes’ side if she had to choose between Wes and Dennis in an argument. In fact, Sarah refuses to criticize her father or show that she’s more loyal to her husband than she is to her parents.
Meanwhile, Wes has been trying to reach Luke over the phone and has to leave voicemail messages asking Luke to call him back. Based on what Wes says in one of the messages, Wes has not heard from Luke in more than a month. Their college class is having an upcoming reunion that Wes plans to attend, and he hasn’t been able to find out if Luke will be there too.
And in the voice messages that Wes leaves for Luke, it’s clear that Wes imagines that Luke is living a carefree bachelor life in Los Angeles, which is a mecca for good-looking people who want to be famous and in showbiz. Wes makes a slightly sarcastic comment that Luke must be too busy dating all the hot women he meets in Los Angeles, while Wes is stuck in a boring corporate job and living in the same house as his demanding father-in-law.
The reality is that Luke isn’t all that happy with his life either. He lives in a cramped one-bedroom apartment. He’s struggling to pay his bills, since it’s not unusual for his clients to underpay him or pay him very late. And there’s more than a hint that Luke would rather be doing something else with his talent than doing low-paying editing jobs. (It’s a frustration that writer/director Carlini had for years, according to what he says in this movie’s production notes.)
As for Luke’s love life, he’s shown morosely deleting his profile on an online dating site. Luke ends up not going to his college reunion. But Wes does, and he runs into a woman named Maggie (played by Nicole LaLiberte), whom Wes and Luke knew only on an acquaintance level. However, shortly before they graduated, Luke and Maggie had an amazing connection when she invited herself over to Luke’s graduation party. Later in the movie, Luke tells the details of that night, in one of the film’s best scenes.
The romantic sparks between Luke and Maggie didn’t go anywhere because they never dated each other. After graduation, she moved to Europe, while Luke also moved on with his life and didn’t keep in touch. But at the college reunion, when Wes and Maggie begin talking, she says that she’s an aspiring painter who works as a bartender in Portland, Oregon. She also asks if Luke is at the reunion, and she looks very disappointed when Wes tells her that Luke probably won’t be there.
Maggie’s dismayed reaction plants an idea in Wes’ head to play matchmaker to Luke and Maggie. Wes has an upcoming business trip to go to San Francisco. And so, Wes decides that before he does his business dealings in San Francisco, he’ll stop over in Los Angeles and tell Luke about this risk-taking adventurous idea: Take a road trip to Portland, find Maggie, and see if she and Luke can rekindle what they almost started in college. Los Angeles is about 960 miles from Portland, so it will take several days to make the trip by car with all the stops that Wes plans to take along the way.
When Wes shows up unannounced at Luke’s door, Luke is surprised to see him. When Wes tells Luke about how Maggie asked about Luke at the reunion, Luke is less than enthusiastic about taking a road trip to Portland to see Maggie. In fact, Luke hates the idea. Luke tells Wes that he’s “taking a break from women” and that he’s been celibate for the past six months.
There’s more to Luke saying no to this trip than Luke not being interested in dating. Luke hasn’t been feeling that great about his life in general, because he sees other friends in his age group thriving in their careers, getting married and having children. Meanwhile, Luke feels stuck in a rut and wonders why he isn’t living his best life. Observant viewers can figure out pretty easily that the main reason why Luke has been avoiding Wes, who seems to have a nearly perfect life, is because of Luke’s diminished self-esteem when comparing himself to his closest friend from college.
Wes decides to make the best of his time with Luke, so they hang out at a bar, where a drunk woman named Mallory (played by Paige Spara) sees Luke and makes a beeline for him. She playfully tells Luke that he was “mean” to her, and it’s clear from his reaction that they probably had a casual relationship that she wanted to be more serious that he did, so he probably distanced himself from her. Sure enough, Luke tells Wes that Mallory and Luke used to hook up, but he just wasn’t that into her and ended the relationship.
Mallory tries to be flirtatious with Luke, but he’s not having it. A female friend with Mallory attempts to get Mallory to leave the bar with her, but Mallory refuses, so the friend gives up and leaves. Mallory is then surrounded by some rough-looking men at the bar who look like they’re probably going to take advantage of Mallory in her drunken state.
Wes and Luke are nearby seeing all of this take place with Mallory and the sleazy-looking men. Wes puts Luke on a guilt trip and says that they shouldn’t leave Mallory alone with these strangers. And so, Luke reluctantly invites Mallory to crash at his place. (A predictable vomit scene then happens.)
The next morning, Mallory mistakes Luke’s kind gesture as a sign that he wants to start dating her again. She tries to kiss him, and when Luke makes it clear that he’s not interested, Mallory goes on a tirade and insults Luke by telling him he’s a “loser,” while Wes is nearby watching this mini-meltdown. After Mallory leaves in a huff, Luke tells Wes that he’s changed his mind about taking the road trip. And off they go.
For whatever reason, Wes has brought a duffel bag full of cash with him on the trip. One of the things that Wes does before the road trip is impulsively buy a bright orange Ford Bronco that he saw for sale on a nearby street. This Bronco is what Wes and Luke use for the road trip, with Wes in the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively.
One thing that’s very apparent in the movie is that Wes seems overly invested in making a love connection between Luke and Maggie. It’s as if Wes wants to believe that true romance can happen against the odds, perhaps because he’s starting to doubt how much he loves his wife Sarah. There are bits and pieces of this inner turmoil that come out in the way that Wes looks and talks whenever his marriage and “ideal” life are mentioned in conversations.
Wes and Luke end up taking the Pacific Coast Highway on their trip north. They stop off in places such as Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Monterey, San Francisco and Humboldt County. And along the way, they encounter different people who give viewers more insight into the contrasting personalities of Wes and Luke, as well as how each of these two buddies interact when they meet new people.
Even though Luke is the one who’s the bachelor, he’s much more hesitant about approaching women than Wes is. In Santa Barbara, Wes and Luke end up partying with two fun-loving college girls who are about 15 years younger than Wes and Luke. Bayla (played Olivia Crocicchia) is a sorority type who is attracted to Wes, like Constance (played by Medalion Rahimi) is a hippie-ish type who has a connection with Luke.
Wes and Luke tell them why they’re going to Portland, and Bayla and Constance think it’s a romantic idea and encourage Luke to find Maggie. Luke still has some doubts and fears about how Maggie will react to this surprise visit, but Wes is so enthusiastic about the trip that Luke goes along with what Wes has in mind. Bayla and Constance need to go to Big Sur, which is in the same direction as where Wes and Luke are going, so Wes and Luke offer them a ride to Big Sur. This carpool leads to some mildly amusing situations.
Luke is also thinking that even if he and Maggie did rekindle what they started, it would probably be a long-distance relationship because he has no plans to move to Portland. Luke has become fed up with living in Los Angeles, and he’s considering moving to Richmond, a suburb in the San Francisco area, because Luke’s brother Phil has offered to help Luke get a corporate job at a sanitation company. It’s definitely not Luke’s dream job, but he’s tired of being broke.
While in Monterey, Luke gets a call from Phil, who tells him that the potential sanitation-company job needs to interview Luke that coming Monday. And just like that, Luke has to decide whether or not to continue on to Portland or go to the job interview. Luke makes a bet with Wes that will determine the decision.
Meanwhile, during their last night in Monterey, Luke and Wes meet another pair of female friends: Rebecca (played by Joelle Carter) and Ellen (played Lola Glaudini), who are in their 30s and seated nearby at an outdoor lounge area. Wes is the one who takes the initiative and approaches them, while Luke sits nearby and watches.
Wes invites Rebecca and Ellen to join him and Luke for dinner and drinks. This dinner scene is one of the standouts in the movie because the four of them open up about their relationships and what they think about finding true love. It’s a mature, very realistic conversation that will resonate with a lot of people who watch this movie.
Luke and Wes have told Rebecca and Ellen why they decided to take the road trip, and the two women weigh in with their opinions. Rebecca is newly divorced (she literally signed the divorce papers that morning) after 17 years of marriage. She and her ex-husband, who lives a few hours away in Palo Alto, share custody of their 11-year-old son Jesse and their 9-year-old daughter Caroline. Ellen, who traveled from Berkeley to comfort Rebecca through this final stage of the divorce, has never been married and she says that she doesn’t want kids.
There’s another pair of female friends whom Luke and Wes encounter later on, after a few surprise twists and turns in the story. It’s enough to say that Wes didn’t want this road trip only to play matchmaker for Luke. Wes is also using the trip to figure out his feelings about love and evaluating how he’s been living his life. His “grass is greener” envy about Luke is that Luke has the freedom to come and go wherever he pleases as a bachelor with no children, while Wes has a much more constrained and regimented lifestyle.
“She’s in Portland” makes great use of locations for what is obviously a low-budget film, whether it’s the intoxicating party atmosphere of Santa Barbara, the laid-back beaches of Big Sur or a somber cliffside gravesite in Elk, California. And, of course, any movie that’s about a road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway should have majestic views of the highway and nearby landscape, which cinematographer Devin Whetstone captures with breathtaking aplomb.
Beyond these production elements, the greatest strength of “She’s in Portland” is the heart of the story: the well-acted, well-written portrayal of Wes and Luke’s friendship. The supporting characters also make this story seem very naturalistic and genuine, but everything hinges on and ultimately succeeds with the convincing performances of Dewey and Arnaud.
On the surface, “She’s in Portland” seems like a road-trip movie to find love with a woman, but it’s really a journey about two male buddies who come to realistic terms about who they are and what they want out of love. And what they discover is that “grass is greener” envy isn’t so much about wanting someone else’s life, but it’s a fear that your own life has been about settling for less than what you want and deserve.
Freestyle Digital Media released “She’s in Portland” on digital and VOD on September 25, 2020.