This year’s Maine International Film Festival opens appropriately, with a kiss and hug to Maine and a new filmmaker.

In Jaime Hooks’ “Vacationland,” a family reunion has been scheduled, by whom, it’s not clear, in the dark woods of western Maine. Whoever was in charge of the invitations seems to have fumbled the ball. Only four pilgrims arrive, and one of them, a quiet, almost priestlike young man, Michael (Peter Pentz) is unrelated.

It seems that he was once in love with the mysterious daughter Lucy and she dropped him. Stung in the heart, he goes through her mail and finds the invitation and decides to show up and win back her heart, failing to realize that he has her invitation and she won’t show up. We decide early on not to put too much faith in Michael’s brilliance.

It seems that he was once in love with the mysterious daughter Lucy and she dropped him. Stung in the heart, he goes through her mail and finds the invitation and decides to show up and win back her heart, failing to realize that he has her invitation and she won’t show up. We decide early on not to put too much faith in Michael’s brilliance.

Michael, hitchhiking up to Maine, arrives to find a broken down shack of an ancestral home much like that we once saw in “God’s Little Acre,” full of black flies and mildew. It’s a ruin covered with the debris of years of Maine’s ice storms and angry autumns.

Seeing no one, and exhausted by his travels, he slumbers, only to be awakened by a shrill, giggly woman who stumbles out of the forest like a Stephen King wraith, with fright in her eyes and years of neglect in her hair.

This would be the aging Louise Bergen (a delightful Karen Black, returning to the screen in a challenging role). Louise seems to be thrilled to be here in the woods where she once found happiness, only to muddy her life with Maker’s Mark bourbon. Louise eagerly awaits the arrival of dozens of the clan, unaware that the family postman didn’t even ring once.

Soon, her long estranged daughter Polly (Sarah Paul Ocampo) arrives with her own daughter Iris (a very good and prematurely competent Ivy Girdwood) and some emotional baggage of her own. Bit by bit we find our way into the family closet, where skeletons share space with sodden memories. It’s been ten years since Polly has broken bread or words with her mother. Yes, Louise is Mama, and after a half hour with Louise, we can pretty much see why. Louise is a barely functioning drunk who moves painfully through life, one that was all dreams and no plans, and with what is left of a broken heart.

The back story here seems to revolve around a time when granddaughter Iris was left in her care. It’s not perfectly clear what happened, but it seems that Louise “lost” the baby somewhere. “But she was found again,” Louise weeps, “wasn’t she?” as if that was just all good and fine.

It’s clear that given Louise’s propensity for the grape, that other infractions wore daughter Polly’s patience to a fine dust. Then again, a few moments with the embittered Polly suggest that she is divorced, and that she herself is no fun to live with.

The character of Michael seems to have been left in clay without much definition. He just seems to be carefully placed to serve as a kind of fledgling shrink with the patience of a monk and the good heart of a stable neighbor. Somehow, Michael, while falling in love and bed with Polly, whom he has softened, brings all the threads together. Louise cooks, Polly smokes and sulks, granddaughter Iris explores, wine is poured, conviviality reigns. Then Louise messes up again.

There is a mysterious birch bark map discovered by the child, and she persuades Louise to go exploring for ancient treasure in the woods, where the two are separated. Has Grammy repeated past sins?

Director Hook raises the tension a bit here, throwing in a dark lake and perilous rocks. Will Louise lose Iris again, this time with tragic results? Will mother and daughter find a common glade of forgiveness? What about Lucy? What about Michael’s broken heart? Confrontations and resolutions will pack in. Hearts will be broken and healed and life will, as it annoyingly does, go on.

There are errors and surprises of course, but director Hook’s work is earnest. Hook is still young and clearly has a nice career ahead. His work shows enormous talent and given luck, his future looks bright.

It was nice to see Karen Black on the big screen again, and all the other players, particularly Sarah Ocampo, will be seen again.

Cinematographer Ben Kasulke gives us an idyllic Maine woods without gnats, black flies and skunks. It’s pretty and windy, full of sunshine and promised hope. Maine, the way life should be.

 

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