Credit: Mubi/First Look
by Daniel Cicchelli Featured Film

Gasoline Rainbow — Bill Ross & Turner Ross [First Look ’24 Review]

March 18, 2024

In a 2021 Bomb Magazine interview with RaMell Ross, filmmaker Turner Ross articulates the method that he and his brother, Bill, utilize when embarking upon a film: “There’s the intention, the impulse, and then there’s the act of actually being a cameraperson and making editorial choices.” He continues, “because of the way that we’ve chosen to work, going out in the world to find those things, it’s very much an act of being present and curious. It’s about looking for something, but also being available to surprises.” Indeed, their chosen working method is not straightforward documentary, but a mixture of improvisations mapped out with non-professional actors in real places. Both their 2012 feature Tchoupitoulas and 2020’s Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets ostensibly take place over the course of one night, but were actually filmed over multiple months (the former) and on a rented set built to replicate a location (the latter). Their new film, Gasoline Rainbow, continues this peculiar working method, following a group of recent high school graduates and lifelong friends who embark on a summer road trip. Except, reportedly, none of the actors had met prior to shooting, and the high school they purportedly attended does not seem to exist. Nevertheless, the brother’s immersive aesthetic sells the illusion. As critic Mark Asch notes, it’s really a “nonfiction portrait of fictional circumstances.”

Our erstwhile protagonists are Tony, Micah, Nichole, Nathaly, and Makai. Wandering aimlessly around their small Oregon hometown, the group decides to drive 500 miles to the coast. Their goal is simple — see the ocean. What follows is a series of vignettes documenting the gang’s misadventures and encounters on the open road. There’s no real plot here, with only a handful of incidents that propel the kids from one place to another. But an elegiac tone permeates the proceedings; on the cusp of adulthood, unsure of their futures, and, it’s strongly implied, poor, there may very well be only limited options awaiting them. But for the duration of their impromptu vacation, they are free. The Ross brothers refer to the film as an “improvisational self-portrait of the new generation” and a “punk-rock Wizard of Oz,” and it very much feels like an open-ended adventure. After only a few hours on the road, during which beers and weed are consumed and communal songs are sung, the group stumbles upon a party spot in the middle of nowhere. After more drinking, the group wakes up only to discover that their van has been stripped and tires stolen. Undaunted, they press on, hitchhiking to the next town. A stop-over at a roadside diner provides a brief respite, followed by a chance encounter with some gutter punks on their way to Portland. The punks teach them how to hop on freight trains, and like modern-day hobos, they start riding the rails. Eventually arriving in the city, the group takes time to party some more, hang out with some skaters, meet a group of headbangers, and try to find a lakeside “end of the world” party.

Certain details are cast aside; money is only mentioned briefly, but no one goes hungry, and there’s no concerns about bathing or sanitary conditions. It’s a halcyon fantasy, in other words, full of an overflowing, generous spirit. There’s no sense of danger, and the filmmakers never try to goose the narrative via violence or arguments. Every person the kids meet has their own story about how they got where they are. Some of the adults suggest regret or remorse at old resentments, like a cautionary tale for the kids to absorb — community is all they have, so don’t sever those ties. The camera almost always captures multiple people in the frame simultaneously; by eschewing lots of close-ups, the film’s aesthetic reinforces these notions of community and togetherness. Overlapping dialogue and a constant hum of music — this might be the soundtrack of the year — keep the energy levels high, even as the film must eventually come to some sort of a conclusion. There’s a distinctly timeless quality to Gasoline Rainbow, which transpires over the course of several days but feels like it could be one long, endless night, or even a month. The film is too alive to be called a collection of liminal spaces, but there’s a kind of perpetual “present tense” sensation. But the adventure must end, and the future must be faced. Might as well do it together rather than alone.