Review: Woodsrider


Woodsrider, a documentary from Uncork’d Entertainment bills itself as a “season of adventure and self-discovery.” This is true, in so far as I, through the self-discovery of watching have learned to another degree, more or less, that I really can’t stand bad movies. It also ostensibly bills itself as a “meditative film about identity, home, and the way that human experience echoes that of the natural world.” I literally don’t know how Woodsrider is about any of that. 

It’s a tale of one girl’s immeasurable time spent in Government Camp, Oregon possibly sleeping in the woods once or twice and spending the rest of her time living her normal life. I may need to take back the moniker of ‘tale.’ Perhaps ‘recording’ or ‘video’ is more appropriate. A tale implies a story is told. Woodsrider tells you almost nothing. There’s a girl. She has a dog and car and from time to time she snowboards while going through life. Let’s be clear, if this were actually made to tell a meaningful tale of a “poetic persona” or a “searching pioneer” or even just a “snowboarder,” I’ve no doubt I would have enjoyed it much more, but there’s little to enjoy here period.

Woodsrider - Trailer

Director: Cambria Matlow
Rated: NR
Release Date: March 12, 2019 (VOD)

Sadie Ford is 19. That much, at least, is likely fact, or was when Woodsrider was made. We open following Sadie, clad in snowshoes, hiking through a break in some woods, her mutt Scooter by her side. It’s a long shot that follows the companions at the speed of uphill snowshoeing (aka slow) and it was a promising start to the film. Sadly, things that begin with promise don’t always deliver. Unfortunately, the length of the shot was not representative of the beauty of mid-winter nature, or of the minute scale of one human being eclipsed by the grandeur of mother nature, it’s simply the first example of a complete lack of understanding how to edit a film or create compelling narrative. These long shots that go on for too long become a hallmark (or low mark) of Woodsrider, like when Sadie and a friend are carrying their snowboards up a road after they leave the slopes. The camera tracks their motion and tracks their walking and tracks their movement while cars blare by in the foreground.

It’s possible I’m failing to understand some deeper meaning, but I doubt it. Owing to the multitude of technical production errors that hound this film, I think it’s safe to say that we’re dealing with definitive amateurism and not elevated philosophy or storytelling too complex to understand for the average viewer, but more on all of this later

Sadie (and flea-bag), hike into the woods and construct the roughest of camps. It’s little more than some Himalayan prayer flags strung across some branches and a tarp draped over a rope hung between two trees. Sadie is documented coming here a handful of times, including once even at night. She has a fire of sorts, and appears to make some effort at creating shelter by digging out snow and heaping it around her tent to separate herself from the elements. Shortly thereafter, she’s somewhere in civilization eating cereal with a friend. Sadie has a knack for moving between the woods and civilization, appearing at what I think is her mother’s house, the outside of some sort of store front, the inside of what appears to be a museum of some kind, a hallway that can’t be attributed to anywhere in particular—here, she’s doing laundry after what I believe is two days of “isolation”—in a pool with friends (they seem to be pool-hopping or trespassing), and finally at a house party.

I’m making several points here, for someone who is purportedly more comfortable living under a tarp in the woods rather than somewhere with “four walls,” Sadie spends a lot of her time in or around civilization. Woodsrider feels more like someone documenting the day in the life of a ski bum rather than an insightful or elevated experience of any kind. Is Sadie living in a tarp because she can’t afford rent? Has she broken into someone’s house to use their washer-dryer?

I’m not going after snowboarders or the lifestyle, not at all! There are some great films out there documenting phenomenal moments in both snowboarding and skiing (and some great comedies about ski bums), but this is not one of them. And that’s no credit to Sadie, either, as from fleeting glimpses of her actually tackling the slopes, she seems quite capable on her board. But those moments are fleeting and they don’t show up for far too long, leaving viewers in a prolonged state of melancholy, wondering if anything good or meaningful will ever happens. The answer, mostly, is no.

Ten minutes of torturous minutia are dedicated to a party where people spout generic party lines to each other like “great to meet you too!” and hold red plastic cups. It’s not even some kind of mind-blowing party worthy of inclusion. There’s a heated game of beer pong that earns two prolonged looks. The only positive thing I can say about that is that at least they play with ten cups on each end of the table. But I could also complain that the table is too short (eight feet is regulation) and that the players are already standing with their arms over the table when they shoot. It’s a depressing look inside a party that fails to even negotiate how Sadie deals with social interactions or what her emotional response is to the environment given her supposed self-imposed isolation. I’d wager to say that she spends more time with people in Woodsrider than without.

If you notice me hedging my bets, verbally, it’s only because I have no idea what’s happening! There are no calendars, so any sense of time is reliant on cues like lighting, changes from day to night, or audible clues (let’s come back to the later soon). It’s impossible to follow time based on any of those factors here. Tracking a car through a snowstorm, we suddenly find what I presume is the same car driving into a wooded area where it’s not snowing. It might have been two portions of the same trip en route somewhere, but I don’t know because there’s no narration, no textual overlays or graphics, and the audio quality is garbage. It sounds like the entire recording was done with a shotgun mic mounted to the camera only. Subsequently, we rarely hear any of the conversations or their motivations. The terrible audio quality is not done any favors by the absence of music. The score is 30 minute increments of shotgun pickups from the real world interrupted by 2-minute spans of music. Meaning, mostly, there is no music.

I’m not sure I can appreciate anything about Sadie other than the fact that she seems to like to snowboard and enjoy the company of her dog when it’s not too cold outside to keep Lassie with her. This reality doesn’t change throughout the duration of Woodsrider either. You enter in ignorant bliss, and depart from the viewing perhaps even more ignorant than before, for now you have a lot of questions, questions you probably won’t care enough about to ever attempt to answer.

Now if we want to talk about nature, let’s do it. Woodsrider does hold one or two better than poor moments, but they’re both buried at its conclusion. In one, Sadie feeds birds from her hand while snapping rapid fire captures from her iPhone. The other feels included to justify the description Woodsrider’s marketers will use to try to sell. It’s Sadie, on an overlook, sitting and (admiring?) the view, or the moment, or … well, I can keep guessing, but that’s pointless too. In a different movie, perhaps the one they set out to make, it might have been rather nice. But there should have been more of this. If this is about comparing the human experience to that of of the natural order, where’s the nature? No, trees and snow, predominantly at ski areas, don’t constitute that sort of examination. Google Government Camp, Oregon, where this takes place. It’s a beautiful area at the base of Mount Hood. Are you telling me that real filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to cherry pick a natural phenomena or two to give this more oomph? They weren’t busy not straying from their subject–they do anything but focus on there at the house party.

Technically, I’ve covered the audio, I’ve covered the shots that are held too long, and I could also go into the lack of color correcting for interior shots, or the moments when focus tracking is just atrocious, but there’s no need. Let’s simply say, it’s not technically sound. So, it’s lacking technical ability, it’s lacking cohesive or compelling story, and it’s lacking extended portrayals of natural or human athletic beauty. Basically, all of the things I might have hoped for in this film are absent. What’s that leave us with? Not much, certainly not an experimental film, as I’ve seen it described, unless of course we mean it was an experiment by people who’ve never shot film before in trying to use camera equipment.