Setting a horror film in well-wore territory can create diminishing returns. Yet finding a unique way to channel those settings into darker visions can yield interesting perspectives. The woods have long stood in for the idea of creepy, if not actively dangerous, locations. Yet in Brightwood, getting lost in the woods is only half the story. Director Dane Elcar comes out of the gate strong in his directorial debut. With a slick script, Brightwood becomes an alluring depiction of relationships teetering on the edge.
Brightwood follows a young couple, Jen (Dana Berger) and Dan (Max Woertendyke) as they go on a run. While Jen appears ready to go the distance, Dan lackadaisically joins her, clearly not ready for the journey she’s prepared for. Yet after they enter the woods, they instantly get lost. As they circle the same lake and pond, they begin to realize the strange coincidences and creatures that return to the woods around them.
Elcar keeps his two actors in near constant motion, and this instantly helps get to the core of their character. As they run and run through the woods, they begin to tire. With exhaustion looming, their guards come down, and they begin to lay barbs on each other. Eventually, Elcar substitutes the physical draining of his protagonists for the mental draining. This allows Brightwood to effectively land its psychological horror while continuing to break down his characters.
Both Berger and Woertendyke are game for the experience. They add small flavors to their characters as they go through the woods. As the story evolves, they create new layers to the overall story and help Elcar bring out more explosive interpersonal disagreements. This becomes important as the mental strain of the characters begins to weigh on us, as well as their partners.
Brightwood gets away with minimalist landscapes to sell its vision, but that does not mean that Elcar settles. He finds new angles and twists within the shots to both reveal and hide information from the characters. Additionally, this makes the existence of production design in Brightwood more effective than a traditional story. With seemingly few sets and props to fall back on for character, the presence of any item becomes more powerful. Additionally, the characters must fully exist on their own without using these devices as crushes. It ends up being a win for Brightwood because Elcar is up to the challenges limited production design brings.
While the low-key drama and thriller may not have end-of-the-world stakes, it does effectively provide us with the death of a relationship. The power of the actions depicted on screen becomes vital as the two young adults try to save their futures. Brightwood is at its best when it pushes its characters to embrace their darkest moments, and we found more than enough tension in Brightwood to deliver a unique experience.