Sundance 2021: ‘One for the Road’

Thai director Baz Poonpiriya’s One for the Road is a lush road film, a buddy picture, a romantic comedy, an epic melodrama, a story of betrayal—or three, more or less—and the struggle for redemption. Maybe that’s one or two things too many—I’m still trying to get my head around the mother-sister thing—but when it’s all over you’re likely not going to feel as exhausted, as worked over, as you might think. The simile is there, visualized for you, in an early sequence: it’s like a long night at the bar, tossing back one overly crafty cocktail with a clever name after another, each layered—let’s say complicated—with a dash of this, a float of that: some egg whites, some chemo drugs, a touch of chartreuse, a little blood, lots of tears, two kinds of bitters, the angry and the anguished. And, by God, you’re going to get to the bottom of every glass, and yes, you’ll hate yourself in the morning, and you’ll swear that will never happen again as you wait for the room to stop spinning and for your entire GI tract to unsour, thinking of all the stupid things you might have said—

But no, actually, One for the Road isn’t like that at all. Or it is. Yes, you will get to the bottom of every single backstory, of every narrative twist—they just keep serving you for some reason, this place will never close—but no, you probably won’t hate yourself. You very likely won’t feel a single regret. If you have a heart and can take some pleasure in this movie’s urge toward the maximal.

In the midst of one of his nightly debauches, Boss, a Thai native turned wayward New York bar man, receives a call from his estranged pal Aood, who’s dying of cancer. Aood has one last wish: he needs Boss to come back to Thailand and drive him across the country so he can return some sentimental baggage to his ex-girlfriends. Boss agrees, of course, if reluctantly, and right off we see there’s a lot of tension to be overcome between the two men, signified by some prickly exchanges and a flashback of a broken window left behind in New York the last time the two saw each other. They’d shared an apartment there for a time and the dream to start the bar Boss now runs by himself. We get the sense they were both running away from something then, from home and family, but that the game wasn’t sustainable, at least not for Aood, who finally bailed out. Now, faced with his imminent death, he’s decided the best he can do is go on this apology tour, spending a few final, nostalgic moments with the women he hurt back then before he deletes them from his phone’s contact list. (That finality really is strangely moving.) There’s something exquisite and charming in the journey’s opening stages, fed as much by the chemistry between the actors—particularly Aood and the dancer Alice—as by some goofy comedy that plays nicely on Boss’s extravagant machismo and Aood’s natural vulnerability.

But the road gets bumpy pretty quick, forcing some hard reflections on the two friends’ inclination toward boorishness in their New York days, a combativeness that Aood seems to regret and that Boss continues to embody. Extended flashbacks, seamlessly woven into the contemporary journey, lead us through the evolution of the fellows’ friendship and their falling out, reaching back, too, to the complications of Boss’s coming of age in a wealthy family (class is nominally at stake here, too) and his own legacy of lost loves. As these narrative strands proliferate, we begin to see what we thought might be the end of the road drifting farther and farther off into the distance, and maybe there’s a point where we start to wonder if some strict but sensitive editing could have tuned up the film’s dreamy emotional power while trimming away the most sentimental flab.

And yet, with its fine performances and cinematography, it’s hard not to lean into One for the Road’s epic strumming of heartstrings, particularly on night one of the festival.

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Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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