The Hoosier Films Annual Festival will be held online Sept. 3-6, 2020. For schedules and more information on the other films playing, visit the official festival site.
The Shade Shepherd makes it look easy. The story is set in the late 1980s, as a Hoosier psychiatrist and nervous soon-to-be father skips out on work and wife for a few days to help his drug-addict fugitive brother escape north into Canada. Jack (Jordan Hodges, also the film’s co-writer) is the psychiatrist; Pike (Randy Spence) is the drug addict, whom we meet in a quickly cut moment of drug induced madness. Their story is told like a low-budget boys’ adventure film for grown men, learning from one-another as they navigate their way toward new self-actualization — like Old Joy, but less sitting in baths and crying about responsibility, more exploring abandoned farmhouses somewhere in Northern Indiana.
All the ’80s keynotes are there: a synth score, moody lighting, cassette tapes and a poster that harkens back to that era’s promotional artwork. Despite that, though, Shade doesn’t rely on aesthetic touchstones as a crutch. It isn’t a compilation video with characters spouting cute references to old cartoons or cultural catchphrases. Jack and Pike move from location shoot to location shoot at the speed of plot, and each one feels deeply familiar to this lifelong Hoosier.
Back in college, I worked on archeological surveys for the Ball State Archaeology Department. I went all over the state. This wasn’t the first time I’d gone out to see Indiana (and surrounding places) out of curiosity, but it was the only period of my life where I’ve walked around endless fields searching for buried stuff between breaks in small towns whose names I can’t recall. It sounds pretentious to say there’s a charm to Indiana that I always think about fondly, maybe more accurate to say there’s a decaying timelessness about it. Buildings built in 1889 are still standing in various states of (dis)repair. Oftentimes they’re alongside structures built two, five, seven decades later. Some farms have modern houses built near major roads, with large, abandoned brick farmhouses elsewhere on the property, windows and doors removed. Many of our surveys resulted in finding the relics of domestic lives long gone on land owned by descendants of the families that left those artifacts (which is to say, we weren’t finding many arrowheads).
Shade captures this midwestern timelessness in an earnest way, which makes up for the lack of urgency felt in Jack and Pike’s journey throughout the movie. The fugitive hook implies a chase film, and this is not that. It’s two brothers traveling through a timeless place, looking back on their pasts and how they were shaped. Jack, who married, found every success he could want; Pike, the opposite. Their childhood was rough. It’s boilerplate bothered-brothers material that works thanks to good performances and the sense of place each location provides.
Confidence and conviction define The Shade Shepherd most of all. It simply has no time to make off-hand excuses about its low production values. Jack’s weapon of choice on their adventure is a bow and arrow. Why, creatively? Because bow and arrows are pretty awesome, much more so than guns. That’s not the reason provided in the story, but creatively it’s as visually appealing as it is sort of silly. Every choice is owned: There’s no nervous apologizing for not having an extra couple grand and no attempt at toughness by giving its hero a firearm. Good performances, thoughtful character work, a good twist and a true sense of place make this one of the most enjoyable Hoosier productions in years.