In a line up of decidedly depressing features during the Sundance Film Festival 2014, Land Ho!, written and produced with subtlety and wit by Martha Stephens (Pilgrim Song, Passenger Pigeons) and Aaron Katz (Cold Weather, Quiet City), stood out as a film about hope, new beginnings and accepting the inevitable change of life. Land Ho! takes a look at something our society has traditionally pushed aside, tried to diminish, and shove into senior-citizen homes: life after sixty and retirement. In some ways, it is a coming of age tale, only the protagonists are men in their sixties, with much of their lives – including first loves, life passions, spouses, and children – long behind them. This, however, is perhaps the point of the film: we never stop growing and there are always life lessons to be learned, no matter our age. Stephens and Katz deliver this message with plenty of jokes, endearing scenes, and beautiful country vistas – and kept the Sundance audience laughing and engaged.
Old friends and former brothers-in-law, Mitch, played with delightful exuberance by Earl Lynn Nelson (Pilgrim Song, Passenger Pigeons) and Colin, played with a more introspective realism by Sundance veteran Paul Eenhoom (The Collectables, This Is Martin Bonner), embark on a road trip across Iceland in a quest to reclaim that spark of life they have recently felt a lack of. In an effort to cheer his friend up after a separation from his second wife, the gregarious and loud-mouthed Mitch surprises the introverted and thoughtful Colin with a first class trip to the Scandinavian country, complete with first-rate hotels, fine dining, natural spas, and enticements of younger women’s affections. Colin reluctantly accepts and the duo jet off to Reykjavik.
Once there, Mitch’s unending enthusiasm and apparent lack of self-awareness and Colin’s melancholy and brooding fixation on the joys of life he no longer feels privy to come together to create a compelling tale of letting go of the past and accepting life’s changes. While Mitch desperately holds on to his youth, refusing to accept his age to the point of practically deluding himself and others as to his place in life, Colin has practically resigned himself to a life of irrelevancy, puttering about the house with a walker and chamomile tea.
When the two gents meet Mitch’s distant, and much younger, cousin Ellen (Karrie Crouse of Quiet City and South of Hell) and her friend, Janet (Elizabeth McKee of The Mean Time and A Future for Saltadère), for dinner and clubbing, Mitch attempts to relive his second youth while Colin feels sorely out of place and old. The dinner conversation revolves around Janet’s studies in Jewish mysticism. When prodded, Janet explains that one of the main ideas behind Jewish mysticism is the idea that the physical reality which we experience with our five senses is only a tiny fraction of the entire Reality which we and the universe inhabit. A sort of Plato’s Cave, if you will. She goes on to tell them a supernatural story she recently read about a living house that fed on its inhabitants in a bid for everlasting life.
After this rather disturbing tale, Mitch and Colin trek across the spectacular panoramas of Iceland, grappling with geysers, mountainous landscapes, each other and themselves. They ultimately both come to terms with the changes in their lives and they find the new meaning, new life, new land they had been looking for. They realize that a full life is not just for the young and vivacious, and there is no need to either try to reclaim a fargone youth, or say adieu to life’s joys once passing a certain age. Life always changes, but that does not mean that life at sixty is less relevant or less joyful than life at twenty. It is simply different, and it offers new opportunities and joys.
Unlike the house in Janet’s story, Mitch and Colin ultimately choose to accept the changes and seasons of life they face. In the beginning of the film, in an attempt to console Colin over his separation, Mitch tells him that a relationship won’t work if the people involved don’t love each other. And that is at the bottom of our existence: not youth, not beauty, not sex, not materialism, but love – that unseen force that flows through us and the world, and while certainly going through many permutations throughout the course of a human life, is always there for us.
Though 2014 was a first at the Sundance Film Festival for Stephens and Katz, they have a record of delivering festival-worthy fare. Katz’s Quiet City won the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit Awards 2008, and Stephen’s Pilgrim Song won awards at the Memphis Indie Film Festival 2012 and the Appalachian Film Festival 2010. In addition to having a female writer and female director, Land Ho! also boasts a production team helmed by female producers Mynette Louie, Sara Murphy and Christina Jennings. Stephens’ and Katz’s direction of Land Ho! is sensitive and mature, drawing out naturalistic performances from their actors and allowing relationships and conversations to play out naturally, giving the viewer a glimpse into the inner fabric of their characters. Although I would have liked the film to dig a little deeper in the topics it roused, it was a wholly enjoyable and thought-provoking (without being pretentious) film. Though Land Ho! did not make the list of Sundance Film Festival 2014 winners, it comes highly recommended. And since Sony Pictures Classics bought the film at Sundance and is planning on releasing it in the States, chances are it’s coming to a theatre near you!