By Mark Asch

Gasoline Rainbow
Bill and Turner Ross, U.S., MUBI

“America is a young country,” as the saying goes, and maybe that accounts for the appeal of the road narrative in American culture—it’s a genre for young people. It’s all ratty romanticism and disposable bliss—singing along with your head out the window of a speeding car and feeling small under starry skies; a few inadequate hours of sleep on a casual acquaintance’s couch surrounded by fast-food wrappers—and fueled by a sense of discovery, of both a nation and a self. You hop from scene to scene, from landscape to landscape, because you aren’t quite sure where you fit within it.

Gasoline Rainbow is a film in explicit dialogue with the mainstays of this American genre: Kerouac and Tom and Huck, Badlands and Springsteen and Lana Del Rey videos. Like last year’s The Sweet East, in which “America is a young country” becomes a running joke, it’s a teenage odyssey spanning miles of open road and many different subcultures. While that 2023 release followed Talia Ryder up and down the mid-Atlantic states where the American Revolution took place, Gasoline Rainbow concerns five teens who are, like a young America itself, racing to the Pacific Ocean. Tony, Micah, Nichole, Nathaly, and Makai meet up before daybreak, under what appears to be the only traffic light in their Oregon hometown—it blinks yellow, signifying a place where you don’t even come to a full stop—and then bust out in an old van, singing along to “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” and meeting people on their way out to the coast, where they plan to rage at a mythic-sounding “party at the end of the world.”

The film is another of brothers Bill and Turner Ross’s immersions in the regional euphoric, following their breakthrough Tchoupitoulas (2012), in which three young brothers miss the Algiers ferry and so absorb the music and marvelment of late-night New Orleans. The missed ferry is echoed in Gasoline Rainbow by an automotive breakdown that forces the fivesome to improvise much of their journey—a recurrent storytelling device it feels noteworthy to point out, as neither film is, strictly speaking, a nonfiction. Like Tchoupitoulas, set across one night but filmed over nine months, and like the Ross brothers’ 2020’s Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a portrait of regulars at a closing Las Vegas dive bar who were actually assembled by the directors and invited to spend a night drinking at a rented joint in Louisiana, Gasoline Rainbow has the roughed-up feel of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, but is really something closer to a nonfiction portrait of fictional circumstances. Situations are contrived, often heightened, and the performers, playing themselves, are given rough directions and then filmed with a handheld intimacy. (I suspect the Rosses also pick much of the music, though the wistful nostalgia the Zoomers express over “Big Poppa” feels true to a prematurely elegiac generation.) The filmmakers are after a kind of Herzogian ecstatic truth, often to be found in the kinds of spaces where someone is likely to be rolling on literal ecstasy. (I should be clear in case any narcs are reading: though the teens of Gasoline Rainbow party hard, attending bonfire ragers where a girl demands the aux cord so she can play Enya and house parties with a guy who once got his hair caught in a drill press while listening to Nuclear Assault, they are never shown ingesting anything stronger than legal-in-Oregon marijuana.)

The film is very obviously not a documentary—for one thing, there does not appear to be a “Wiley High School” in Oregon, making the cast’s student IDs, with their wild-mustang mascots, an on-theme mockup; and, pace a geographically specific early title card, nowhere in Oregon are you as far as 513 miles away from the Pacific coast. Though the visual style sometimes apes the ride-along grammar of cinema vérité, hovering around morning-after postmortems over replenishing swigs of Gatorade and capturing tableaux like a half-eaten bag of Ruffles and a crushed can of Rainier, single cuts will shift the perspective from jostling handheld to sunset-backlit telephotos taken from seemingly miles away. The filmmakers intercut snapshots and blend footage from a number of sources, from richly saturated and Stephen Shore–esque to smartphone blur; many cast members receive an Additional Photography credit.

Chance encounters are narratively convenient and stray references feel purposeful and thematic: a riff about Lord of the Rings reinforces motifs of quests and fellowship, while a mention of Where the Wild Things Are limns a parallel with that other narrative of unsupervised play. But the film’s constructed reality yields a collaborative intimacy, both between the filmmakers and their subjects, and among the subjects themselves. These hardly camera-shy young people are appealingly casual and genuine with each other, alternately daffy in casual moments(“I didn’t put much thought into that,” one says about a planned “Fuck It” tattoo) and giddily tender when relating to a new person who seems, miraculously, to have been thinking some of the same thoughts as they have. Each of the main subjects contributes to a poetic, polyvocal voiceover about the pressure to fit in and the desire to belong; in beery heart-to-hearts, they reveal more personal backstories, including their parents’ struggles with addiction and deportation.

There is much precarity and diversity in the Real America, and as the kids hitch and bum their way to Portland, with its gentrifier graffiti and telltale sightings of tents in public parks, the film gestures toward a thin line between their nomadic sojourn and a deepening homelessness crisis. The Rosses embrace the flavorsome margins of the country, filling the film with the fruits of their remarkable street (road?) casting, a crust-punk in a studded Cramps cap and Portlandia’s vegan pagan Gen-Xers. Though the improvising kids are verbally skeptical when following strangers to second locations, they say yes to unfamiliar situations, ending up at skate parks and house parties. These are presumably options presented to them by the Rosses, but still, often, real adventures—they hop freight trains, board boats, dodge encounters with the cops.

The kids are embracing of risk and open to the world in a way that older viewers might not expect from young people raised in an era of helicopter parenting, school shootings, true-crime podcasts, and social medial; maybe it’s their apparently hardscrabble upbringings relative to the subjects of generation-game trend pieces, and maybe it’s judicious route planning from the Rosses in leading them through areas without cellphone service, but they are hearteningly present in the moment.

Their naturalness is in a sense a pose, and in a sense not. If they are rarely on their phones, it’s partly because they’re already performing for a different set of digital cameras, being “young” and “carefree” for a remote audience composed not of their friends, but of the Rosses—and us. In that sense, as in its faux-doc style and condensed essence of Americana, Gasoline Rainbow must be counted as truer than true. It places its viewers in the position of the peers who are usually the witnesses to its subjects’ sincere performances.

The Ross brothers are scrupulous with time as they structure their conceits. The single night on the town enjoyed by the underage vagabonds in Tchoupitoulas suggested a fairy tale, a temporary fantasy of escape. In Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, which was actually shot in a single night, the invention of a bar’s closing, a Last Call ringing out with real finality, took on extra prescience during the COVID-necessitated bar closures that immediately followed the film’s premiere. But it was also fundamentally cyclical, its ostensible setting in the boom-and-bust town of Las Vegas a metaphor for the eternal dialectic of Saturday night and Sunday morning. Gasoline Rainbow is more strictly linear—youth has a countdown clock, and the kids, graduating from high school, are aware of the threat of global warming, as well as the impending arrival of adult responsibilities, narrowing possibilities, and inevitable disappointments. Their journey to the beach was, perhaps, always destined to end in a stare-down with the future, like The 400 Blows does—what is the ocean but the end of the open road?

Gasoline Rainbow screened Sunday, March 17, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2024.