Lotawana, the directorial debut for Trevor Hawkins is, if nothing else, gorgeously shot. Hawkins is a lifelong resident of Lake Lotawana, located about an hour south of Kansas City. The lake and its surrounding areas are flush with natural beauty. Trails, boating docks, dirt biking paths. It’s a low-key place for residents and a quiet escape for the rich coming in from the city. Rows of modern mansions border portions of the lake, although people of all stripes live there. The goal of Lotawana is, in part, to tell a feature-length story that captures the area’s beauty and for Hawkins to show outsiders what his hometown looks like. Despite his clear talent for photography, the story he chooses to carry that talent leaves a bit to be desired.

Forrest (Todd Blubaugh) is a lanky, handsome man searching for meaning in a fast-paced, consumption-focused world. He decides to retire himself to Lake Lotawana, buying a small sailboat, the Lorelai, that he calls home. It’s an idyllic existence, the sort of which busy men might dream. Nobody to boss him around, no responsibilities. Just his wits, his boat and whatever he happens to scrounge up for dinner. He’s a lake rat. He likes it that way.

Then Everly (Nicola Collie) catches his eye. She’s wearing overalls, a T-shirt and a cute smile. It’s not long before they’re inseparable. He teaches her how to sail, and she makes his world a little less lonely. They sail, camp and live a life of meager means but great love. It’s not entirely perfect. He’s cocky and more than a little arrogant having lived his dream. He pokes fun at her New Zealand accent. When she reveals to him that she’s pregnant, his reaction is sub-optimal. “Just get it aborted,” he tells her. Although he comes around, this push-and-pull between Forrest’s desire to control his reality — and the way Everly behaves within it — and his love for her creates great tension when the pressure mounts against their chosen lifestyle.

Lotawana exists on two levels. The first is as an opportunity for Hawkins to film his handsome performers and the beautiful scenery around them. There’s a lot of golden-hour stuff here, a lot of close-up shots of dead fish and bubbling brooks. He shot in every weather imaginable. Rain, snow, sleet. As a showcase, it clicks well.

As a story, though, it just doesn’t click at all. Forrest is unlikable and feels less like a fully fleshed-out character than a stand-in of sorts. His initial relationship with Everly just sort of happens in montage rather than dialogue and incident. It slows down when they face an unimaginable tragedy together: Their child, having lacked any kind of prenatal medical treatment, arrives stillborn. In part, it’s a commentary on their lifestyle and the (off-screen) familial tensions that led them to live alone on a boat, but it’s a point that doesn’t feel developed enough given where the story ultimately goes. The two of them fight, reconcile and fall into burglary to make ends meet. Everly’s devastation is depicted through her desolation, which remains unresolved by the end of the film, and the movie also climaxes with an additional tragedy that feels contrived given the much more human pain Hawkins works with earlier in the film. The characters deserve something greater than what they get.

These are two young people who eschew conventional paths and suffer mightily for it. Their lives are unending walks of despair, their only respite the occasional nature walk. Did Forrest love the lake too much? Should Everly have just contacted her parents and tried her hardest to fall back into their good graces? If they had been more willing to take minimum wages, would their son have survived? The final moments of the movie are a death dream, one that starts on Lake Lotawana but also features B-roll of dolphins and the ocean, forest waterfalls and a little blond boy smiling, welcoming us to an afterlife where things weren’t quite as shitty as when we were living off Lake Lotawana. I don’t believe that was the point Hawkins meant to make here.

Sometimes writing reviews can be difficult. I finished Lotawana frustrated, but having given it time to sink in, I feel somewhat differently about it. Everything I’ve written is upfront and honest. The story told just doesn’t work as written. It’s a strange, sometimes meandering story about unlikable people making wrong decisions and being punished for it. Thrilling to look at, sure, but strange … strange in that I appreciate the fact that it’s so unrelenting in its lack of wanderlust about their lives. There are many directorial debuts that act as wish-casting by writers and directors who use their photography skills, good-looking actors and / or narrative story to live vicariously through their own films. That’s not the impression left by Lotawana, even if it wasn’t aiming to be so downbeat about its subjects. It almost screams, “Get a job, lake rats!” I appreciated it.