Venice Film Fest 2023 Review: Bill and Turner Ross’ “Gasoline Rainbow” Sets Its Sights on New Horizons

It’s typical of people in films by Bill and Turner Ross to remain anonymous until their names are revealed in the end credits, but in “Gasoline Rainbow,” they actually become anonymous by the end. This isn’t to say that Micah Bunch, Nathaly Garcia, Nichole Dukes, Tony Aburto, and Makai Garcia, all introduced by way of their student ID cards from Wiley High School, are lacking in personality to distinguish them, yet whereas the Ross Brothers generally let you engage with strangers at your own pace to know them like family by the end, you already know the teens in their latest film — or at least this most restless of moments in their lives and the names are all but incidental when their experience is what defines them. After previously spending a magical night out in New Orleans with a younger set of children in “Tchoupitoulas,” “Gasoline Rainbow” can seem like a follow-up set in Oregon where the quartet from the one-stoplight town of Wylie have made it their mission to share an adventure together before inevitably settling into whatever adulthood brings.

The difference between “Gasoline Rainbow” and most such narratives, however, is that much as the teens are apt to curse Wylie and eager to leave, there’s a sense among them that they can run as far away as they want and still unlikely to break free, making this adventure all they have. With a far more modest goal in mind than to set themselves up for a life somewhere else, they simply want to get to the Pacific Ocean, just a shade over 500 miles away for a day or two before heading back. When the expectation upon their return is to join the military or live out some version of the same lives their parents led, there is a roar of applause outstripping the purr of the engine on Nichole’s van when she finally gets it to start up and although the teens may feel like outsiders in their own community, they find their people along the open road. Playing out like the fantasy of any teen who thinks of roughing it, the group is invited to join a guy whose evening plans are to “chug beers with my homies,” throw themselves into a mosh pit for an impromptu concert in a Portland park and hop a train when the van can no longer carry them.

If the journey seems like it’s a little too good to be true, the Ross brothers haven’t been shy about wanting to ditch the term “documentary” when discussing what they do, but they nonetheless have gotten closer and closer to the heart of the matter, if not the truth of it. If there’s a genre “Gasoline Rainbow” would seem to belong in, it’s the one that Benh Zeitlin and producer Michael Gottwald, a mutual partner-in-crime with the Ross Brothers, first broke open with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (or to go back further, its preceding short “Glory at Sea”) creating a new canon of young adult adventures where everything feels slightly more beautiful and pure than one’s own memories but gives the deep down sense that you’re right there with the people on screen when the grit around the edges reminds it’s territory you’ve walked as well.

Seemingly without direction or much cash on hand, the kids in “Gasoline Rainbow” never come across as lost and have little to be afraid of when so much of their lives seem predetermined that it feels risky to resist walking into the unknown when possible. The most superficially fearsome people that the quartet comes across often ending up as the kindest – a veteran of the punk scene who cooks breakfast for them insists on listening to the gentle strains of Howard Shore’s “Lord of the Rings” theme “The Shire” as he cooks, and a pair of vagabonds dripping in facial piercings trade tips on jumping the train in exchange for restaurant leftovers – and time falls away, its only markers really being the occasional songs the teens sing, ranging the gamut from Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” to Travis McCoy’s “I Want to Be a Billionaire” that don’t exactly tie them to a specific era.

It wouldn’t be spoiling the ending to say that the teens make it to the Pacific coastline when it only feels like a beginning, leaving their footprints in the sand, surely traversed by thousands if not millions before but smoothed over by tides now, and while the Ross brothers don’t linger on the moment for resonance when they’ve collected so many others that are bound to make an impression in “Gasoline Rainbow,” they seem in the moment as if they’re the first to get there with something indelible and deep.

“Gasoline Rainbow” will screen again at the Venice Film Festival at the PalaBiennale at 4 pm.

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