I have seen many independent movies about sad young people running off to figure themselves out over a weekend, and just as many that use the local environment — rather than expensive sets and soundstages — to tell their story. Plenty of those are good. Some are great. West Michigan stands apart. What seems to start as a conventional story about a young woman adrift in the world blossoms into an emotionally intelligent coming-of-age tale with an extraordinary sense of place.
Hannah (Chloe Ray Warmoth) is a 17-year-old concerned with the big things and disappointed by the small ones. She’s recently single, works at a small boutique retailer and has little vision for what to do next. She gets word that her grandfather is dying, so she and her brother, Charlie (Riley Warmoth, also the film’s director, writer, and producer) take a road trip up the western side of Michigan to visit him on his deathbed. Their car, wouldn’t you know it, breaks down on the side of the road, and opportunities for growth present themselves.
The two spend their trip together catching up on their lives. They’re trapped in the stage of life where siblings are split between the high school / college divide. It’s a strange time: You’re just as close in age as always but never further apart in responsibilities and social context. At least one of you isn’t at home anymore. The real-life siblings play it well. In interviews, they describe the film as filled with inside jokes between the two of them. Small-talk scenes that usually feel forced in similar movies don’t here. West Michigan is laudable for not treating Hannah’s depression as a mere plot device, and she’s a messy character who goes on her own journey to make peace with herself. Chloe Warmoth plays her with expressive emotions big and small. It’s a great performance. I felt it.
Also expressive is Riley Warmoth’s captivating use of Michigan landscapes. The film opens with a shot of their hometown and proceeds to look gorgeous in every single shot. It’s an externalization of Hannah’s inner growth as she experiences so many new emotions and epiphanies for the first time in her nascent adulthood. Beautiful, disorienting feelings that feel like they’ve always been there and always will be. Warmoth’s captures how goddamn gorgeous everything feels at the age where aimlessly traveling without parents or guardians becomes possible.
West Michigan is superbly acted and shot, a “best-in-class” for small-budget coming-of-age movies.