'One For The Road' Review: 'Bad Genius' Director Steers A Stylish Road Trip Dramedy [Sundance 2021]

Thai director Nattawut Poonpiriya's impossibly stylish high school heist thriller Bad Genius was one of the best hidden gems to emerge from the Southeast Asian region over the past few years, and seemed to signal a bright new filmmaker in the arena who could rival Edgar Wright in breakneck editing and crazy camera acrobatics. That thought occurred to me the first few minutes into Poonpiriya's latest equally stylish film, One for the Road, but gradually faded as the road trip dramedy took a few too many detours and soapy left turns.

A wistful road trip movie that follows a pair of old, estranged friends who reconnect after many years, One for the Road at first seems to radiate cool: it opens on a sweaty Bangkok summer night as a young man listens to a rock 'n' roll radio DJ from within a white vintage car, rifling through cassette tapes titled "Midnight Riders." Nostalgia seems to seep from every frame of One for the Road, even as it suddenly travels halfway across the world to New York City, where a bartender is making drinks for a rowdy crowd, the camera dipping and twirling alongside his hands in a dizzying fashion. The bartender is named "Boss" (Thanapob Leeratanakajorn), a wealthy heir who spends his nights running his high-end bar, and spends his days falling into bed with the ladies who patronize that bar. But while mid-tryst, he gets a phone call from Aood (Natara Nopparatayapon), his former roommate and working class friend who had returned to Thailand after a bad falling out. Aood has cancer, he learns. And he needs a favor.

Boss quickly packs a bag and returns to Thailand to grant Aood his favor: to drive Aood cross-country in a farewell tour to his exes, which doubles as a trip down memory lane for the both of them. A structure is in place — Aood has a cassette tape for each ex, and an item to return to each girl that will inevitably bring up old memories — and a catharsis of some kind is in order. We'll unearth the reason behind Boss and Aood's falling out, as more memories of their life together in New York are shown with each reunion. We'll find out why Boss is such a scumbag who sleeps around and dismisses his friend, even as he goes above and beyond to show that he does care for Aood. And Poonpiriya's signature stylish direction rises to the occasion, going heavy on the shallow focus and warm hues, and letting the flashbacks unfold in tandem with the reunions, playing out like a melancholic dance across time.

The first ex-girlfriend they meet is Alice (Ploi Horwang), a dancer who is introduced in a flash of red hair and a red, twirling dress — a bright contrast to the drab dance teacher working at a strip mall who at first refuses to see Aood. But she is eventually persuaded by Boss, and the pair reunite at a dance hall, Aood remarking at how much she's changed. "There's no need to be stylish in this town, everything's slow here," she responds, and as if taking a cue from her, the rest of the movie slows down too. Well, kind of.

Poonopiriya, itching for excitement and restless to flex his directing chops, can't seem to resist throwing in another few breakneck sequences, whether in a drinking montage that ends in a health scare, or an absurd sequence in which Aood's actress ex-girlfriend (Bad Genius star Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) fires a bullet during a film shoot that (metaphorically) hits Aood right in the heart after they have a painful reunion. Poonopiriya, who co-writes the script with Puangsoi Aksornsawang and Nottapon Boonprakob, sprinkles in random moments of broad humor that sit uncomfortably with the film's wistful nature, and seems almost in defiance of the more mature stylings that are associated with the film's producer Wong Kar Wai. I wouldn't mind these comedic moments if they worked, and if they didn't disappear about halfway through the film, where One for the Road takes a sharp turn for the sentimental.

After having failed to set things right with his third ex (Noon Siraphun), a photographer now married with a daughter, Aood has one final cassette tape for Boss. The film then launches into its lengthiest flashback yet, into Boss' lonely childhood living in the luxurious hotel of his mother's husband, whose only human connection was the friendly bartender Prim (Violette Wautier) with whom he soon falls in love. The two of them move to New York City, where their lives intertwine with Aood in a serendipitous twist of fate.

This about-face that takes place halfway through this film is jarring, to say the least. The film has suddenly transformed from a nostalgic road trip dramedy to a star-crossed romance, the two parts operating almost like two completely different movies, Poonpiriya unable to reconcile his stylistic flourishes with the sentimental nature of the story. It's the marked style difference that makes them feel so separate, Poonpiriya apparently having worn out all his cool tricks in the first half, is resigned to making a straightforward soap opera in the second, and the film feels imbalanced for it. Poonpiriya showed such airtight perfection with Bad Genius that a meandering film like One for the Road will no doubt feel a little bulkier. But Poonpiriya's third feature undoubtedly feels like a filmmaker at a crossroads: a formerly hip, young thing who is trying to prove himself a serious director, but coming up short.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10