Desert Son (2010) – By Cary Conley

Phillip is a teenager on his way to tennis camp when his whole world is turned upside down. His drunken and hateful stepfather can’t stand him so instead of taking Phillip to tennis camp, he dumps him in the middle of the desert and leaves him stranded. After two days in the desert, Phillip stumbles across a collection of ramshackle buildings and finally passes out from exhaustion and exposure. He is discovered by Lucy who revives him with her canteen full of water and takes him to a rundown shack in the middle of the desert where she lives with her boyfriend Jack.

Half-dead from his time in the desert and unable to cope emotionally with the thought of returning to his alcoholic parents, Phillip decides to stay with the two teens and try to make a go of it in the desert wasteland. Seeing Phillip as competition, Jack is none too thrilled with Phillip’s decision; however, Lucy is quite happy to have someone else to talk with. Phillip soon learns how to live in the middle of nowhere as Jack teaches him how to trap rabbits with homemade traps and how to steal what is needed to survive. The three have stolen bikes and can ride to new startup neighborhoods skirting the desert where they can help themselves to all the food, clothes, and supplies a suburban neighborhood can offer.

As Jack senses that Lucy and Phillip are becoming close, he grows more and more irritated, finally telling Phillip to leave as he points the direction to civilization. Phillip leaves but comes back the next day after he realizes that Jack sent him in the wrong direction in hopes he would die. Jack continues becoming more abusive and violent towards Lucy and Phillip, culminating in an angry burglary that goes horribly wrong when a maid, who is wearing headphones and didn’t hear the youths break in, discovers them in the kitchen. What follows is a series of events that spirals out of control until the youths explode against each other in a fit of rage. Will anyone escape this living nightmare? Will Lucy and Phillip survive to continue their budding romance? Or will Jack ruin everything?

In a time when nearly every week sees a big-budget Hollywood remake or sequel being released, Desert Son is a refreshingly unique and hard-edged thriller. James Mann has written a very strong script with authentic characters that accurately capture the extreme angst some teens go through as they enter adulthood. The three leads are rock solid and capture each character perfectly. John Bain as Phillip does an excellent job playing a youth whose life has been turned on its ear. He is nervous and has a difficult time looking anyone with authority in the eye. He’s so used to having abuse heaped on him that it barely registers anymore. His character seems more like a dog that has been systematically beaten and approaches a person cowering and with its tail between its legs.

Erica Curtis portrays the sad character of Lucy. Even though Lucy is a runaway and an arsonist, one feels a great deal of sympathy for the character and senses her innate innocence and purity. It is difficult to make the audience sympathize for a character as Lucy describes the hell she put her adoptive family through, but Curtis expertly maneuvers this minefield and manages to do just that. There are other excellent character portrayals as well (Bill Oberst, Jr. as Phillip’s drunken and downright hateful stepfather and Elvis Winterbottom as a crazy priest who is also marooned in the desert), but perhaps the best performance of all these wonderful actors is Nathan Halliday as Jack, the disenfranchised and highly paranoid older youth whose utopia is disrupted by Phillip’s arrival. There is a constant sense of foreboding surrounding Jack. One senses that it is just a matter of time before this ticking time bomb of a character explodes, and we know it will be ugly. Halliday is superbly intense as the sense of paranoia Jack feels continues to increase. In a way, Jack reminds me of what Charles Manson must have been like in 1969, preaching to his flock in the desert, commanding absolute obedience and respect, and threatening anything and anyone he didn’t like with extreme violence. And just as Manson’s growing paranoia finally erupted into terrible violence, the audience has a sense that Jack is headed in the same direction.

Co-directed by Mann and Brandon Nicholas, Desert Son is a terrifically taught thriller with an overwhelming sense of paranoia I have rarely seen on film. The wonderful desert scenery and sense of isolation created by the filmmakers serves to increase that sense of despair as the viewer realizes that these three youths will have to deal with the situation alone. No one else will come to help. It is a superb use of location. The cinematography is excellent and the musical score complements the action perfectly. It is no surprise that the film won in the Best Cinematography category at the recent Vision Fest 10.

Desert Son is a very well-made film and has been selected to numerous film festivals across the U.S. Now available at Amazon and Best Buy, you may also want to check it out at for more information. It is being released on Breaking Glass Pictures’ Vicious Circle label and is well worth catching. Easily one of the best thrillers of 2010.