Reviewed by Michael Erb
Anthropology student Nathan has an idea for his class project that’s just killer. His family owns some land that once the site of a Chumash burial ground, a place of great importance and sacred significance. Nathan wants his professor and a few classmates to come with him to the family land and recreate a Chumash ritual. The professor agrees and so Nathan’s friends, some hot sorority sisters, and a lot of illicit substances go to the coastal cottage for a weekend of fun and academia. What they don’t know is Nathan’s brother Benny has been drinking the hallucinogenic tea of the Chumash rituals, sending him into trippy kidnapping sprees. Benny also lets a meth cooker/addict named Delgado to stay in one of the greenhouses. After the group arrives and disturbs both men’s relative tranquility, they both realize that they have unfinished business with one of the girls Nathan brought along.
Rites of Passage is a bit hard to describe. It’s like a menacing backwoods hillbilly movie but with elements of a revenge film and a bit of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The movie also has three actors in prominent roles that are more known for doing any movie that comes along than they are for their acting ability. By all accounts, Rites of Passage should be awful. However, it really doesn’t do much wrong and the talent elevates the material when it begins to drag. The movie becomes fairly entertaining.
Longtime writer and first time writer/director Peter Iliff crams a lot of ideas into the movie. There’s a conflict between two brothers over the same woman, there’s two slightly sympathetic drug fuelled villains, there’s even a sub plot about a cam girl and a horny college kid meeting in real life. That’s a great deal of stuff to pack into a movie, even for a veteran screenwriter.
For the most part, Rites of Passage succeeds at maintaining a good balance over all its elements. When it does go overboard, however, the story suffers. There are characters that are simply never seen or referred to again, leaving their fates questionable. And even though Iliff manages to have all the separate elements comes together in the finale, it feels unsatisfying.
The tea hallucinations are the most interesting visual Rites of Passage has going on. The focus gets very hazy and fish-eyed, with lots of lens flairs and tribal drawings dancing in the peripheral. There are shamans performing some ritual and occasionally Wes Bentley’s face turns into a bear. It’s a trip alright.
The young cast does well all around. Their performances feel authentic and lend an air of credibility to the hard partying, hard studying set. Christian Slater has the most developed role in the film and appears to have the most fun out of anyone in the cast, playing the dual role of Delgado and his imaginary talking stuffed monkey, Poncho, with insane aplomb.
Wes Bentley plays the spaced out, creepy train wreck Benny. When Benny is on a tea root trip, Bentley chews scenery and appears to mentally go to a far off place. It’s cool to watch, especially when he’s capturing another would be bride or when someone’s writing on his way too stoned face. Only Stephen Dorff pulls off a somewhat lackluster turn as Professor Nash. Sure, Dorff looks confident and smug when seducing his students and entranced when he ingests some special tea. Otherwise, he looks a little sleepy and his performance becomes a bit tired.
It’s hard to put a quantitative rating to Rites of Passage because it actually did most of what it set out to do. The story is interesting and a bit refreshing in tackling the backwoods crazies’ trope. The cast makes the movie fun and enjoyable. The hallucination scenes are cool and executed well. Rites of Passage also doesn’t do anything particularly spectacular and loses interest with its own characters. It’s a nice first go at directing for Peter Iliff, but it looks like he could do more with his next movie.
The movie looks good and has no real audio/visual issues with the disc. High definition and standard setups should both be able to showcase those trippy tea sequences in all their splendor.
There’s only a short making of feature and a few trailers. The making of is interesting when Peter Iliff talks about how long it took him to finally transition from screenwriting into directing. Otherwise, the disc is sorely lacking in this area.