“You’re an orphan now — it’s like origin story shit,” Theo (Sasha Lane) tells Xochitl (Ariela Barer) upon her mother’s passing, standing outside her wake, smoking cigarettes in “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.” The thought of emerging with the strength of a superhero from such a loss is cold comfort to the grieving daughter, but it’s nice to throw in the mix swirling around her head amidst other things as director Daniel Goldhaber makes sure to frame the shot against the backdrop of an oil refinery in Long Beach where the proximity surely contributed to the cancer that took the life of Xochitl’s mother and at the very least has poisoned her own thoughts as a toxin, if it hasn’t physically harmed her yet.
Out of the many potentially explosive elements that are handled in this electrifying adaptation of Andreas Malm’s 2020 treatise of the same name, ideas are the most dangerous in “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” as Xochitl and Theo round up a group of fellow environmental activists to take out a refinery in West Texas, having no illusions that their efforts will leave just a small impact on the oil industry, but hoping the ripple effect of spiking oil prices will lead others to take notice and ultimately action. Although Malm scoured the world in search of direct actions to combat climate change, Goldhaber and co-writers Barer and Jordan Sjol approach his work by honing in on a single protest and amping up the intensity, bringing together people of various backgrounds and beliefs all with the same goal and small but crucial distinctions between how best to achieve it, making the group dynamics potentially as combustible than the live ETN that Michael (Forrest Goodluck), an amateur detonation expert who lives in the shadows of oil fields in North Dakota, packs into a plastic barrel to carry out the mission.
The film runs the risk of turning into a dry debate about the most constructive form of activism, but instead as a team is assembled by Xochitl that comes to include Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), Logan and Raven (Lukas Gage and Kristine Froseth), a couple from Portland, Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a friend of Xochitl who shares her concerns, and Dwayne (Jake Weary), a Texas local who knows the lay of the land, their perspectives become real fuel for the fire, actively considering what hasn’t worked in the past and conscious of what they’re capable of accomplishing, for better or worse. If anyone was going to successfully turn the passionate and complex ideological conversations around eco-activism from words into action, it was going to be Goldhaber, who with Isa Mazzei previously plunged audiences headlong into the headspace of an increasingly disillusioned camgirl in “Cam,” and while “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” isn’t the same unrelenting assault on the senses that film was to depict how the world came crushing down on its lead, the effect here is similar in activating the mind from numerous angles, marrying the tricky logistics involved in executing the plan at hand with the larger global connections that need to be made to rid the world of fossil fuel dependency.
However, even while making no secret of the fact that it’s a call to action as Malm’s book was, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” knows it must be an engaging thriller first and delivers in spades on that front, creating a sense of urgency that cannot be denied when the pulse-pounding score from Gavin Brivik and the ever-moving camera of cinematographer Tehillah De Castro get the adrenaline going even before the film’s provocations take hold. A well-cast ensemble are able to build memorable characters when there isn’t much time to establish them, nor should there be when part of the fun is their own lack of knowledge about one another, and when so many pieces need to fall into place for their plan to work, the fact that so many do with such precision narratively gives hope that well-intentioned and well-coordinated efforts can still have an impact. This one certainly does.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival on September 11th at 3:15 pm and September 18th at 5:45 pm.