Film Review: Free RideSmuggling-saga conventions are freshened somewhat by family-drama angle.
A loving portrait of a mother many would say deserves a much more critical eye, Shana Betz's Free Ride casts Anna Paquin as a roman-a-clef version of her own mother, a single woman who works as a drug smuggler in late-’70s Florida while raising two daughters. Paquin's name will draw attention to the picture, whose parenting themes go only so far in making a familiar tale of the high life's perils feel novel.
Betz's debut feature presents her younger self (here named Shell, and played by Ava Acres) as a bystander who witnesses her mother's bad life choices but isn't old enough, as teen sister MJ (Liana Liberato) is, to have her coming-of-age shaped by the conflict they engender. We meet the family in Ohio, where Paquin's Christina, being regularly abused by her partner, picks the girls up from school one day and cheerfully declares they're driving straight to Florida.
There, a friend (Drea de Matteo's Sandy) has promised to set Christina up in a job doing light housekeeping at a mansion owned by her boss, "The Captain" (Lloyd Owen). The job's just a tryout for more illicit work: While it's not clear how Christina demonstrates her aptitude while dusting the mantel, she's soon being asked to ride along on boat charters that pick up bales of pot and bring them to the U.S.
Though she's told that her new job's central rule is not to have relationships within the organization, the gig is largely social: Smuggling trips are disguised as pleasure outings, and the party continues back ashore in bars where Christina and Sandy dance provocatively for their male co-workers. The Captain moves the family out of their cheap motel and into a spacious farmhouse, complete with a horse for MJ. The barn doubles as a drug warehouse, and Mom makes her go-along values clear to a teen whose face betrays moral qualms, or at least fear of getting in trouble: "Wanna keep the horse? Then be cool."
The plot follows a familiar arc, with montages of hedonistic good times (including some druggy, gropey parties that are witnessed by the kids) leading to menacing turns of events and inevitable encounters with the feds. Betz and her cast have a firm grip on the domestic side of things, with MJ's confused responses threatening to break the family up before the law can intervene, but the film's generosity toward Christina's decision-making is, however true to life, dramatically unsatisfying. A coda offers the director's actual mother, in voiceover, saying, "You do what you can to take care of your family," a sentiment that may earn sneers from single mothers in the audience who've found less hazardous ways to make ends meet.