In recent years, a popular theory for why romance has been less and less effective in the movies is because all barriers have been removed. Distance is no longer an issue with cell phones and readily accessible transportation and in a supposedly more enlightened age, cultural roadblocks can be more easily skirted around if not eliminated already out of convenience. What is novel about Yen Tan’s graceful fourth feature “Pit Stop” is how former lovers who still carry a torch can feel so alone when they’re within spitting distance of each other, confined by personal obligation as much as tradition in a small town in Texas that hasn’t yet caught up with the times.
There are no overt signs that the unnamed community would be up in arms about the two men who meet up for a hookup at a budget motel shortly after “Pit Stop” starts, but as with all the other things left unsaid in the film, the silence speaks volumes. Neither of “Pit Stop”‘s two leads, Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda) and Gabe (Bill Heck) are big on talking, connected at first by their sexuality, their discretion, their similar occupations and their shared zip code. But as Tan’s film unfolds, the two share something else in common when it’s revealed Luis is winding down one relationship with a live-in lover Luis (Alfredo Maduro) on his way out and forced to reconsider another when an ex is rendered comatose by a car accident while Gabe attempts to downplay the prospect of his ex-wife Shannon (Amy Seimetz) going out with a co-worker Winston (John Merriman), though they still live together for the sake of their young daughter.
Eventually, these stories intersect, but in tandem, they reflect a world of hidden pain for the two men, neither of whom can simply walk away from their circumstances. Of the two, Gabe’s arc is arguably the more compelling since the character’s curious, continued living arrangement with his ex-wife appears to be as much out of comfort as it is for fear of being out publicly or his responsibility to his family. It also benefits from a star turn from Heck, who exudes an easy charisma, and an enjoyable detour of Shannon and Winston’s clumsy first date that parallels how hard it is for anyone to find love. DeAnda endures a rougher road as Ernesto, who doesn’t have as much to play off of after the character kicks out Luis earlier than expected and is generally so reserved that when he raises his voice at his paralyzed ex, it feels as though it’s from another film.
However, with few exceptions, “Pit Stop” rarely feels inauthentic and achieves such power on such a small scale that even the slightest progress for either of its leads packs a punch. Tan and co-writer David Lowery deftly weave in the day-to-day experience of small-town life with the more complex relationships at work between its characters who all have different conceptions of where they live and who with. Though it is notably spare, the film embraces its limited budget to tell a sad truth, set largely indoors where the bare walls of big rooms speak to a overriding sense of loneliness even when they’re filled by people. It’s heartbreaking when Shannon tells her one-time husband, “Sometimes I miss you” when he’s sitting right next to her, and as the rest of “Pit Stop” portends, sometimes the best things are right in front of us.
“Pit Stop” is currently without U.S. distribution and will play the Sundance Film Festival four more times on January 22nd at the Egyptian Theater, January 24th at the Sundance Resort Screening Room, January 25th at the Broadway Centre Cinema 6, and January 26th at the Holiday Village Cinema 4.