'Gasoline Rainbow' Review: A Gorgeous Postcard From Teenage Wasteland, USA – Rolling Stone

By David Fear
Think back to your teenage years, and a few incidents, days, dates, etc., spring immediately to mind. Most of what comes flooding back probably are the sensations that colored that time of your life — the feelings you had while pissing away whole afternoons with friends, not knowing what late nights and early mornings might bring your way, going on long road trips to nowhere. There’s a pot of gold waiting on the other side of Gasoline Rainbow, the latest docufiction hybrid between filmmakers/siblings Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV: a party “at the end of the world,” somewhere along the Pacific Northwestern coastline. But you know what they say about journeys and destinations, and this movie is all about the transitory experiences that pop up along the route. It’s a postcard from Teenage Wasteland, USA, less “wish you were here” and way more of a sense memory of youth.
Much like the gents’ 2020 masterpiece Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which chronicled the last night of a fake Las Vegas dive bar with real barflies, this mix of open-sandbox scenarios within real locations and on-the-fly interactions — call it manufactured-improv vérité — starts with a simple concept. A group of kids from the small town of Wiley, Oregon, decide to get the fuck out of town. They’ve never seen the ocean, given that their inland burg is 513 miles from the coast. So they borrow a van and go west. When their vehicle is unexpectedly put out of commission, they hop a train. One of them has a cousin in Portland, so they can crash there. Supposedly there’s this monster rager happening, and soon they’re all going to have to worry about getting jobs and being adults, so why not one last collective hurrah?

Here’s where things start to get complicated: Drawing from their our self-admittedly delinquent formative years, the Ross brothers began to come up with possible “episodes” that would happen during the movie’s “story.” There was a script, but no real dialogue. They auditioned actual teenagers from Wiley to play loose versions of themselves; a montage of their high school IDs doubles as a cast roll call. The filmmakers then set them up in situations ranging from picking up a guy walking down the highway in the middle of a night (who invites them to a party) to running into a Portland skaterat in a sea captain’s hat (who invites them to a party). How would you guys react?, they asked them. What would you say? Keep things going, and see where it ends up. Y’know, just like it’s real life, unpredictable and filled with left turns and tangents, happening all around you in real time. And: action!

It’s a leap of faith, forcing strangers to act like old friends as they forge actual trial-by-fire friendships and assuming that — if you simply keep the cameras rolling long enough and throw a host of obstacles and oddballs in their path — there’s something organic and engaging waiting for you at the finish line. Voice-over tracks culled from actual interviews with the participants simultaneously give you a state of both actors’ and characters’ mindsets (“I just wanna be loved for who I am”; “Anywhere is better than here”). The soundtrack is filled with random songs that provide a timeless teenage road trip playlist, from “Sweet Child ‘O Mine” to “Big Poppa” to “Enter Sandman”; the mere thought of music clearances for this modest indie flick gives us stomach cramps. Misfits T-shirts give way to Misfits-logo tattoos. One of the gang goes HAM on the virtues of Enya, saying that her music is what entering the gates of heaven sounds like. “I dunno about that,” one dude replies. “But she slaps.

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What instantly elevates Gasoline Rainbow to the canon of teen hangout movies, several notches below American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused but still trespassing its way into the Pantheon’s foyer, is how well the Ross brothers’ methodology captures the free-floating moment between dwindling childhood and dawning adulthood. Its ambling, shambling tour of crashing parties, crashing on available couches, and reluctantly crashing your way into maturity, one misadventure at a time, is not a bug but a feature here. You didn’t need to grow up in 1960s Modesto, California, or 1970s Austin, Texas, to recognize the agonies and ecstasies of leaving high school in the rearview mirror. And you don’t need to be a kid pining for a Portland filled with gutterpunk patron saints and gnarly parties hundreds of miles from your podunk town to recognize the ache of wanting to sprint toward a bold new future, even as you cling to an anything-goes past. That’s universal.

So, for that matter, are the moods behind the bookends of this lyrical ode to hitting the road with your best buds and nothing but the folly of youth and a few bucks in your pocket. Before we’ve even met the five friends who’ll go west, we see them jumping off a rocky ledge into a lake — the idea of excitedly careening into the unknown, suspended in limbo before splashing into the water. Two hours later, Gasoline Rainbow ends with a morning after, in which these fellow travelers know that the journey is done and it’s time to head home. Everyone seems reluctant to let go, then they smile and laugh and head in tandem into the mist. Nothing lasts forever, not even an array of colors brightening up a puddle of petrol. But it was there for a second. And man, was it ever so beautiful.
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