No one says a word for the first ten minutes of Maine, Matthew Brown’s broody, existential take on the culture of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. Instead we watch the film’s two main characters, Bluebird (Laia Costa) and Lake (Thomas Mann), hurl full-bore into the animalistic drudgery of life on the trail: Bluebird emerges from her tent, squats and wipes with a dirty pee rag, then removes and rinses out her well-used menstrual cup; Lake scrapes cold oatmeal from his dented pot and washes his pale chest in an even colder stream. They clamber over split-rail fences, fail to woo Virginia’s legendary Grayson Highland wild horses, and eventually hole up in a hostel where they lie, still silently, on a hard wooden floor, no doubt questioning what led them to the trail in the first place.
We, meanwhile, are left to puzzle out what led them to one another. It’s a question that propels much of Maine’s minimalistic plot and also serves as the basis for the film’s first conversation, an incredibly awkward, stilted exchange between the hiking duo and a group of other thru-hikers at the hostel. “Are you a couple?” asks one of the backpackers. “Kind of,” says the puppyishly earnest Lake. “Not at all,” retorts the mercurial Bluebird. Then she regales the group with stories of how Lake struggles to shit in the woods: “Like a goat… plop, plop, plop,” she gleefully reports in a thick accent. (Both Costa and her character hail from Spain). Meanwhile Lake looks on, crestfallen to learn she doesn’t agree that they are a thing.
Then again, maybe she does. Either way, it’s complicated. Bluebird, we soon learn, is married. She’s also an unapologetic hot mess—erratic, untethered, shifting from maudlin thoughts to sophomoric pranks in the blink of an eye. For his part, Lake serves as the pacific, hipster yang to her yin—crooning away on a borrowed acoustic guitar, firing up the camp stove so they can eat, ambling down trails with the beatific resignation of a long-distance hiker. We never really learn how or why they hooked up on the trail. And if there is a narrative arc to the film, it’s based in the growing sexual tension between Lake and Bluebird as they alternately fight, wrestle, confide, and kiss their way up the Virginia section of the trail.
The lives and motivations of people like this duo have always held fascination for director Matthew Brown. A North Carolina native, Brown grew up in the shadow of the Appalachian Trail. Thru-hiking it, he says, was a long-standing childhood dream, but a serious back injury that he sustained at age 16 made that impossible. “Maine was an opportunity for me to do it through these characters,” he told me by phone from his home in New Mexico. “I realized I could live vicariously through their stories.”
More than that, he says, the trail offered the perfect setting for an inquiry into the kind of extreme subjectivity and limited temporality he says he likes to tackle in his films. His first full-length feature, In the Treetops, released at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival, followed a group of friends on an overnight road trip to nowhere. Maine has a similar vibe: far more Before Sunset or Lost in Translation than Into the Wild or Wild.
Brown says he and his team researched the film at the AT’s Trail Days, an annual three-day bacchanal in Damascus, Virginia. They spent weekends chatting up hikers at road crossings, and Brown says he “Google Earthed the shit out of” the 2,181-mile footpath. “What I like about the trail is that it seems like everyone on it is either trying to lose themselves or find themselves. Some seemed content with that; others were pretty broken down,” says Brown, who is 28. “Like a lot of twentysomethings, I feel pretty lost in my own life a lot of the time, and I wanted to explore that sensation, too.”
To achieve that effect, Brown offers a pared-down script deliberately devoid of polish or timing. Most of the scenes feature only Bluebird and Lake, and both Costa and Mann, two rising young stars in the Indie film world, deliver solid performances, particularly in those scenes depicting the more feral aspects of their relationship (and time on the trail). It’s uncomfortable watching her hawk a loogie into his mouth or listening to him get drunk on gifted whiskey, but that’s also what makes the real-time experience of their time together so real.
The actual filming of Maine (so named because it is the northern terminus of the AT, the intended finishing point for these northbound hikers) took place over 20 days—two on the beaches of Hatteras, North Carolina, for a whimsical opening scene depicting Bluebird swimming, and 18 in southeastern Virginia for the days she spends with Lake on the trail. Filming took place on location and includes the legendary Woods Hole Hostel in Pearisburg, as well as a couple of actual thru-hikers who happened to be staying there. Weather was lousy for a lot of it, and the scenes dripping with fog or depicting tents pummeled by a wet wind are some of the most authentic (and beautiful) in the film.
Nevertheless, true hiker trash will no doubt call foul on the little anachronisms throughout the film: aside from a scene where Bluebird and Lake smear each other’s faces with wild blackberries, they and their cotton clothes are way too squeaky-clean for the trail. There’s a certain campy Western feel to the way the scenery never really seems to change, no matter how far they walk. Nor does much of the scenery look like anything you’ll find on the actual trail. But getting permits to film on the AT is a bitch—even A Walk in the Woods had a hard time coordinating with the National Park Service, which oversees the AT. And while you’ll really want to cake some grime around Bluebird’s cuticles or see evidence of an actual white blaze in a scene or two, there’s plenty that the film gets right, from Christian trail magic and naked hikers to the bizarre sensory overload that occurs when you step off the trail and into a megamarket and the euphoria that comes from eating yogurt there.
Perhaps most important, Maine refuses to placate viewers with dramatic climaxes, proof of self-realization, or tidy conclusions. We leave with no more certainty about whether Bluebird and Lake will finish the trail—or who they’ll be at the end—than we did at the film’s start. And when we get to the credits, these two characters are just as flawed and conflicted as they were in the opening scene.
It’s a bold directorial choice for Brown, and one you have to respect, particularly if you’ve spent any time shouldering a pack. If there’s one genuine realization to be had out there, it’s that the trail lays us open, exposes our soft underbelly, and forces us each to behold what is there. In a lot of ways, the willingness to confront that chaos is story enough.