The rule for any personal-journey film is that the protagonist should discover his or her buried emotional truths at close to the same rate that the audience does. Director and co-writer Jude Pauline Eberhard's first film, Love Always, does not in all respects manage to pull this off. Sometimes, we can see way ahead of Julia (Marisa Ryan), a 22-year-old Southern Californian who decides to give herself one solo, no-holds-barred road trip before she gets married. Even so, there is enough wide-open road and heart, and also a strong enough moral quandary at the end, to make Love Always an entertaining excursion, if not a demanding saga. Eberhard is also adept at making visual conceptions for her character's illusions, giving them their due importance, while in the end finding the right means to puncture them.

In the opening shot, Julia is holding a scenic postcard from her on-again, off-again boyfriend Mark (Michael Reilly Burke), which asks her to marry him. Mark is a young lawyer who has just relocated to Spokane from San Diego, where Julia still lives. A flashback shows Mark and Julia locked in long, sensuous embraces. In the present, Julia seems thrilled that Mark has at long last made up his mind about her. She tells all her friends the great news. But, a few things seem a little wrong: the proposal was on a postcard, after all, and their lovemaking, seen in the flashback, is pleasant, but also mechanical. Julia might be taking a what-the-hell, I've-got-nothing-better-to-do-with-my-life approach to getting married. Although she doesn't perfectly articulate so, taking a roundabout road trip while headed in the general direction of Spokane will help her clarify what she wants.

The first leg of the trip is a miscue for Eberhard, with Julia hitching a ride from a two-dimensional psycho (James Victor) who tiresomely calls her 'angel face.' The script (shared by Sharlene Baker) and the casting also reveal some limitations. Julia is such a likeable, go-with-the-flow gal that her personality can seem almost as flat as the road she covers. Ryan, too, adds little feistiness to a role that should present an opinionated, reckless woman. While it's true that the journey will inevitably help redefine who Julia is, it's nonetheless hard to imagine such a bland person undertaking this trip to begin with.

Yet Eberhard also creates some assured moments. Stranded at night in Las Vegas, uncertain of who to call or where to go, Julia walks across a lot and past a casino wall that's cluttered with glitter. Eberhard, shooting at eye level, well captures the unease and disorientation that the city's nightlife can engender, even merely by walking across a plaza alone. And meeting a polite, intelligent, straightforward loner who lives on a houseboat at last propels Julia to utter a few opinions of her own. It's the first time in the film that Eberhard allows the character to be more than a passive, agreeable observer.

Eberhard and Ryan together bring Love Always to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, when Julia finally meets Mark in Spokane. It's a credit to the script and the direction that, though throughout the film we have grown increasingly suspicious of Mark, when we finally meet with him, our doubts about him are confirmed, and yet we also gain new respect for him. Love Always ends with Julia noting that she has finally found a beginning to her life. In the film's clever closing scene, she throws away her postcard, allowing reality to destroy her biggest illusion.

--Peter Henné