Alta Valley (Nashville Review): A Mixed Bag of a Western
Many decisions made in Alta Valley are either underwhelming or frustrating, but the performances and story just barely make it an enjoyable enough mixed bag.
Alta Valley was written and directed by Jesse Edwards and stars Briza Covarrubias as Lupe, a Mexican-Navajo mechanic whose mother (Paula Miranda) falls severely ill. In order to find money for a treatment to save her, Lupe ventures out to the desolate Alta Valley to ask her estranged father and valley owner Carl (Micah Fitzgerald) for financial help. On the way, she meets and forms a strenuous friendship with outlaw Maddy Monroe (Allee Sutton Hethcoat), who’s on the run from her own debtors. Unfortunately for Lupe, Carl turns out to be worse than she could have imagined and has plans that would put the Alta Valley Navajo natives at risk, forcing Lupe to take both her financial woes and the fate of her people into her own hands.
Briza Covarrubias does well in the lead role, and her chemistry with Alle Sutton Hethcoat is solid whenever the two share the screen together. Hethcoat is definitely giving it her all and turns in an emotional, expressive performance that does its best to elevate the character. The problem is that I don’t buy her for a second as the tough, white-knuckled outlaw she’s supposed to be. She’s too clean-cut in how she’s presented visually, always looking more like a model in a pristine cowgirl outfit instead of the real deal. I don’t think that’s entirely the actor’s fault. I think she just needed better direction and a different look.
The whole of Alta Valley kind of has a similar problem to a lesser extent. It tries to present its environment as a dirty, dangerous place, but everything is either too sanitized or too clichéd. The writing and acting are straight out of every single Western you’ve ever seen, minus an authentic feel from the performers. The first act of Alta Valley is especially generic, with a contrived inciting incident to get Lupe and Maddy together, and the most uninteresting bad guys with the most uninteresting motivations imaginable. I was honestly worried that the whole film would be outright bad. But once Lupe actually gets to Alta Valley and meets her father, the story picks up quite a bit. For one thing, Micah Fitzgerald easily steals the show as Carl. He’s the one major actor who’s able to 100% sell his character’s nature, that being a nasty, sleazy, disgusting beast of a man who can inflict fear just with a single look. As horrible a human being as he is, he’s great to watch and the best part of Alta Valley by far.
On a broader level, when Lupe arrives in the valley, a new wrinkle enters the picture regarding what she’s trying to do, one that speaks to the wider mistreatment of minority cultures and how such history keeps repeating itself. It’s not remarkable, but it still adds to your investment. Something else that I thought was going to be an unnecessarily intrusive plot thread is put to the wayside in an effective and even moving sequence, followed up by some of the best acting in the movie with some of the most surprisingly poignant lines. And at the very end of Alta Valley, a character makes a very difficult choice that I didn’t see coming and, more importantly, isn’t reneged on. I really wasn’t expecting the film to go to such a mature place, but it admirably commits to this final decision.
That’s not to say Alta Valley sticks its landing entirely. The climax, though overall alright, has a lot of highly questionable moments. There’s a major reveal involving two characters’ relationship that’s really unneeded and makes another relationship slightly less engaging, despite its intentions to the contrary. Another character has a moral crisis that needed to be set up better earlier on, and our two leads feel almost inconsequential to everything going on around them. There’s also a scene where a character jumps through a glass window and doesn’t get a single scratch… if that doesn’t speak to how sanitized to the point of sloppiness this movie can be, I don’t know what does.
At the very least, Alta Valley has a consistently solid pace. Every scene flows briskly without feeling rushed, and I never found myself bored despite a lot of standard material popping up. Alta Valley had the potential to be a great film, maybe even one of the most celebrated of the year, on paper. But for every pro the film has, a con lurks right behind it. The acting is generally really good, but the direction around it makes the characters stand out less. The script has a lot of heart and a smart way of evolving, but it disappoints with iffy decisions in other areas. The relationships and arcs have moments to shine, but they could have had a lot more, particularly in the case of Lupe and Maddy. This all rounds out to making Alta Valley an alright film. I wouldn’t care to see again, but I don’t regret having seen it once. If you go in simply looking for a competent movie with just enough to keep you entertained for a while, this should do the job fine.
Alta Valley premiered at the Nashville Film Festival on September 29-October 5, 2022.