Film Review: Here

Languid road movie, punctuated by ponderous abstract interludes, about a young American mapmaker in Armenia who meets a prodigal woman photographer. A promising filmmaker needs to his lose art-school baby fat.

Once upon a time, there was a movie about an Irish street musician trying to find himself through music, and a creative, heavily accented young Eastern European woman whose love helps give him direction. Now, Here, substitute "American cartographer" and "maps" for the guy's part, add ponderous narrated interludes, and replace yearning for soulful musical connection with a yearning for…well, that part's not really apparent. In both cases, the environment—whether the streets of Dublin or the crumbling apartment houses and scrubby, detritus-filled landscapes of Armenia—serves as picturesque exotica and a reflection of the character's inner lives. If Here had more specific focus and less self-indulgent artiness, it might have played more as a meditation on the miracle of finding someone in this vast world and less as a Terrence Malick knockoff.

San Franciscan Will Shepard (Ben Foster) is working for an unspecified company with some Armenian connection, trekking into the countryside taking measurements that will pin satellite images to the right places on the ground—"ground-truth data" for "georecertification." He meets photographer Gadarine Nazarian (the charismatic Lubna Azabal), who's visiting her native country on an arts grant after her struggling parents sent her abroad to be educated. At a reception in her hometown of Yerevan, one proud patron from the city's cultural elite brags that Gadarine just had her first solo show in Paris.

She and Will, who has the luxury of a rented SUV, decide to travel together for convenience and to further their subtle flirtations. They go about their respective work, visit one of her now-married childhood friends (Christina Hovaguinyan), skirt the edge of Iran and travel into the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. In a nice twist, the border guard actually doesn't want a bribe and feels he's had his professionalism and integrity demeaned by the offer. After a topless swim in what looks like a concrete-sided, water-filled ditch, they make love, have a minor car accident while avoiding a flock of sheep, argue, make up, and face his imminent departure.

Throughout, in abstract-visual interludes by four other filmmakers, narrator Peter Coyote intones a tale of ancient mapmakers and astronomers, filled with poetic and sometimes less-than-poetic lines: "His maps are like snapshots, taken in cruel flashes of light…mountains cast no shadows, trees stand as still as dead stones." "The astronomer carries a veil of pure darkness… Gemstones form planets; satin tassels are meteors." The movie begins with a long such sequence, and while it wouldn't be fair to single out Here for the indie-movie cliché of opening with voiceover narration, it's certainly fair to suggest that if you need three or four minutes of talking over generic nature footage to set up your movie, then maybe you should consider a different medium than film with which to express yourself.

Like Once, once again, the soundtrack is lovely here, mixing traditional Armenian music with haunting yet oddly catchy original material. The acting has a well-suited naturalism, though Foster can be self-consciously quirky in a way that doesn't illuminate his oblique character. And the heavily accented English of the Armenian cast and even of the Belgium-born Moroccan/Spanish actress Azabal often needs subtitles. Not subtitling every last bit of the Armenian language is an apt choice, adding to the movie's feeling of dislocation, but we presume the filmmakers meant the English to be understood. For all of Here's admirable qualities, some of its dialogue is less than gemstones and satin tassels. "All you ever really do is skim the surface!" Gadarine, criticizing Will's personality, tells the cartographer doing ground measurements. Yeah, we get it.

Here grew out of a multimedia project screened at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival's New Frontier section and developed through the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program. The theatrical cut runs five minutes longer than the one that played in the 2011 festival's U.S. Dramatic Competition. For all its art-school indulgences, the movie showcases a filmmaker with talent and heart who, with maturity and self-discipline, could go from Here to there.