‘Desert Road’ Is a Quarter-Life Crisis Straight Out of a Nightmare

The Groundhog Day-esque psychological thriller takes the worst day of your worst decade and sticks in the middle of a time loop in the Mojave Desert.

‘Desert Road’ Is a Quarter-Life Crisis Straight Out of a Nightmare

Imagine the worst day of your 20s. A day you spent wiping away snot from your nose after a shattered dream, the final collapse of a years-long situationship, or an exorbitant broker’s fee. A day where something didn’t just end but forced you to reshape your entire sense of self and being. Maybe you cried on your bathroom floor. You definitely called your mom. Now, imagine reliving that inside a time loop.

That’s at least one of the most horrifying parts of Desert Road, a haunting sci-fi thriller that premiered at South by Southwest this week that takes your standard, terrifying road trip gone bad, adds a healthy dose of 20-something existentialism, and sticks it in the middle of a dizzying nightmare where space and time seemingly no longer apply. It’s similar to Groundhog Day or Palm Springs—but only in the sense that something is definitely repeating. As Shannon Triplett, the writer and first-time director, told Jezebel: “This is what you write during the pandemic.”

In the middle of California’s Mojave Desert, on CA-190, we meet Clare (Kristine Forseth), a 20-something leaving Los Angeles and driving back to her parents’ house in Iowa. She stops to get gas at the last service station for 72 miles (bad idea!); has a very creepy encounter with an unsettling gas attendant (Max Mattern), an unfortunately very familiar scene for any woman); and then her tire pops barely a mile down the road, sending her car crashing into a small boulder. She changes the tire but her car remains lodged on top of the rock. Woof. While waiting for a tow truck (or so we think) she calls her mom and vents about her broken dreams of being a photographer. When her mom assures her that she’s an incredible photographer and shouldn’t give up yet, Clare snaps that all the jobs always seem to go to guys and that you can’t call yourself a photographer if no one’s ever paid you for a photograph. She say she’s exhausted, she can’t do it anymore, and she’s felt like she’s been…”stuck in this loop.” (Which all sounds eerily familiar to a convo I had with my mom at age 25…)

Her very encouraging mother (voiced by Rachel Dratch) suggests maybe doing it all by herself is the issue. “I’m not saying you need a man, I’m just saying people aren’t meant to be alone,” she tells Clare over the phone. In hindsight, this might be the most revealing and the most fucked up line of the entire film—but I can’t tell you why.

It’s hard to review Desert Road without giving too much away, but it’s a gorgeous, spellbinding story that leaves you feeling like you’re figuring it out right alongside our heroine. There are some confusing moments around the details of the timeline as well as her relationship with one of the other characters. Also, we never actually get to see any of Clare’s photos—and while this may have been an artistic choice, I really wanted to dissect if it was actually smart for her to get up and leave LA. But none of this took away from the plot or Forseth’s strong performance; she’s on screen for almost the entirety of the 90-minute film. Triplett does a phenomenal job of making you feel as scared, stuck, and hopeless as Clare; any confusion feels purposeful.

Like any lost 20-something who finds themself searching for meaning, Clare eventually finds purpose again—but only in trying to figure out what the hell is happening to her. She even uses her camera—the thing she thought she was bad at using!— to try and start piecing together the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of missing moments after she discovers she’s caught in a loop of the same road, gas station, factory, and her own broken down car. The creepy gas station attendant that initially gave you “red alert” goosebumps at the beginning of the film? Maybe he wasn’t so much creepy as he was just reacting to something even creepier.

Triplett said the indie thriller was actually (oddly?) inspired by how much she enjoys the desert. “I love going out to the desert, the desert is just such an otherworldly place,” she told Jezebel on Monday. “You can go out there and everything kind of looks the same, and these characters are just so unique and have such different social interactions than normal.”

Desert Road ends in a satisfying—but still unexpected!—way; it’s hopeful and peaceful, but still leaves you wondering what the fuck is going on. Clare doesn’t necessarily find the way out of her situation but she does find a way. Which honestly, is the best outcome an aimless, dejected millennial can hope for.

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