I’m from Indiana, so we don’t get quite as cold or snowy as the upper Midwest, but we get our licks in every winter. It’s safe to say I was conditioned in some way to actually find seemingly endless, mostly empty geographic spaces covered in blankets of snow breathtaking in a way many people wouldn’t understand. I think about it more than I should. Sure, the cold is awful, the precipitation is a pain in the ass and shortened days are mind-numbing. But it’s also quiet. Familiar places feel different. If you go on a drive, you’ll pass infinite strip malls featuring basically the same stores, gas stations and fast-food restaurants. The dry air messes with the world, so you notice new smells. Fuel and fryers are the ones I associate, but also the scent of people’s fires and dirty snow, and … it’s just a different world.
Inside spaces change, too — havens from cold, refuges from the season. Everyone is a little more frustrated, a little quicker to snap than they are the rest of the year. It is not a warm time of year. You take it day to day.
Sold Out, written by Susan Brightbill and directed by Tim Dahlseid, is an indie drama set and shot in Minnesota. It follows a fairly conventional setup: Fledgling country musician John (Sam Bardwell) is stuck in a loveless marriage with Lauren (Christine Weber), unable to make time for his musical dreams because of his construction job, the demands of parenthood and Lauren’s’s inflexibility. He meets Kat (Kelsey McMahon), who sees his potential and encourages him to run away with her on a platonic artistic retreat to find his voice. They do, and of course, romance develops even as John struggles to redefine himself, his marriage and his art.
John’s journey doesn’t take many surprising twists, although Brightbill’s script is a surprisingly tough depiction of a marriage that never should’ve existed from the start. John and Lauren are just incompatible, and the birth of their daughter doesn’t make it any better. They both love her, but in different ways and to different degrees. Theirs is not a happy union, and learning to live with that reality is hard on John in particular.
He sets out on his artistic journey in less-than-ideal fashion, running off with Kat for a road trip around snowy Minnesota without really explaining himself. He quits his job in the process, so you can understand why Lauren doesn’t expect him to come back anytime soon. Miscommunication, awkwardness, frustration. It’s a fraught, realistic take on a collapsing marriage.
From tragic pasts to self-doubt overcome, events unfold more or less traditionally for this type of picture, with an ending that feels triumphant in small but important ways. Bardwell and McMahon have great chemistry and both are talented musicians. Enjoyment of the latter probably depends on your feelings about folk and country music, and I’m open to both.
What sets Sold Out apart, at least to me, is the way it embraces its wintry Minnesotan setting. It doesn’t try to downplay the strange unpleasantness of the season and does a good job using the bleak atmosphere to its advantage. Sitting in a car feels like a brief respite from the cold outside. Everything on John and Kat’s road trip of the soul feels … small, self-contained and significant in its own right rather than because outside forces dictate its meaning to John or Kat. I was taken with how well Dahlseid captures this time of year and its somber tone.