SXSW Film: Sequoia

Facing death from cancer, a young woman decides to take her fate into her own hands by taking her own life. But she doesn’t consider the impact that she has on the world until she meets an optimistic stranger in the Sequoia National Park. Unfortunately, she may be meeting him too late. sequoia

“Sequoia” is a dark film with moments of light humor creeping in like rays of suns through the tall sequoia trees. Riley (Aly Michalka) knows death is inevitable with her stage of oral cancer, so she begins the movie by swallowing a bunch of pills to hasten the process. The pills have a bit of a delayed reaction though, so the next hour and a half of the movie are about Riley just waiting for death. Already, a choice has been made from the start of the film and the audience must grapple with what appears to be the inevitable end of the movie. It’s a clever bit of story-telling that gives the audience the chance to really feel what Riley must be feeling in regards to her cancer sentence. We’re now feeling her impending death with an immediacy that we wouldn’t have felt if the film was about the build up to her taking the pills.

What Riley doesn’t account for is Ogden (Dustin Milligan). Ogden is an optimistic, spiritual young man and struggling musician. Despite’s Riley’s initial attempts to escape his company, Riley eventually relents and allows Ogden to accompany her up the mountain to see this great Sequioa tree. As the two polar opposites and strangers journey together, they realize they make each other’s life better. Riley finally realizes she may want to live after all — even if it will still end sooner than most. But it’s too late. She already took the pills. While the film does seem to be driving toward an inevitable conclusion, I will say there are some surprises and it’s worth the journey. Aly Michalka’s acting as the resentful, confused Riley is elegantly handled, especially when dealing with the wide-eyed, naive Ogden. It’s difficult subject matter, but Michalka handles it well.

Again, this is a heart-breaking movie, but it does remind you realize how precious individual life is — if not for yourself, but for what you bring others. It’s not about living the longest, but simply living, which is something everyone should realize – even healthy individuals.

About Bethany Smith