I'm pretty sure if you don't like Hannah Black and Megan Petersen's Drought that you suck as a human being.
The truth is that I was about five minutes into Drought when I realized that I'd already become immersed in the film, a combination of Black's warm and intuitive performance as Sam and Owen Scheid's authentic and heartfelt turn as Carl. Carl is a young man with on the Autism Spectrum living in a home where he's simultaneously appreciated and, well, not. Carl is neither the "inspiration porn" version of autism that Hollywood occasionally likes to portray or the "disability is a tragedy" version that Hollywood is even more inclined to portray largely because Hollywood studios have a tendency to cast non-autistic actors to portray people with Autism (I'm looking at you, Sia. <eye roll>) and they tend to turn it into one lengthy caricature.
Drought is set in 1993, a small southern nowhere town is experiencing a serious drought and Sam is simultaneously determined to find a better life for her brother than in a home with a mother (Jane McNeill) who wants him to be "normal" and where his employment prospects appear limited to a local grocery where he is viewed as scaring the customers.
Another truth is that I couldn't help but fall in love with Hannah Black's Sam almost right away. As an adult with a disability myself, spina bifida/paraplegia/double amputee, I tend to recognize "good people" right away and Sam is just plain good people. Sam is the kind of sister nearly any human being would want, disability or not, and there's such a delightful chemistry between Sam and Carl that you instantly buy into their extraordinary connection.
The film's real revelation is Owen Scheid, a young actor with autism making his feature film debut with a performance that brings together a realistic portrayal of his living with autism with a realistic portrayal of his living. Scheid is an absolute hoot here, an occasional one-liner revealing an instinctive comedic gift and his unique bond with Sam and those who join him on an adventure something very awesome to watch.
It's that journey, yes a road trip, that's at the heart of Drought. Supporting her brother's fascination with weather, Sam steals an ice cream truck and off they go for storm chasing with older sister Lillian (Megan Petersen) and family friend Lewis (Drew Scheid) along for the ride.
It's not necessarily the story that Drought tells that makes it such a special film. It's how Drought tells that story.
There's an honesty and an integrity to Drought that is rare in cinema. My own guess is that's precisely what drew the Duplass Brothers to the film and inspired them to sign on as executive producers. They have a long history of supporting just this type of film, one of many things I admire about them, and Drought tells this honest story with simplicity, truthfulness, transparency, and an abundance of heart. Drought surely has over-the-top feel good moments, but it also has the harsh realities of living on the Autism Spectrum and just plain living life. The script by Black and Petersen radiates an aura of all the wonder and all the dysfunction that family, and family of choice, can be.
The film proved to be popular on the fest circuit with appearances at Dances With Films, Riverrun International Film Festival, Vail Film Festival, Rhode Island International Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, Woods Hole Film Festival, and others. Drought picked up the Audience Award for Best Feature at Vail along with the Independent Spirit Award at the Naples International Film Festival. The film was also nominated for prizes at Dances With Films and Florida Film Fest.
Drought comes out of a production collaborative partnership between Black and Petersen called Same Page Pictures. If this is an example of the types of stories they want to tell, I look forward to following them for years to come.
While there's little doubt that both Scheid and Black truly shine here, it's worth nothing that this is a mighty fine ensemble cast including a terrific Megan Petersen and an absolutely spot-on Drew Scheid among others. Brad Walker's lensing for the film is pristine yet natural throughout while Christian Black's original music for the film serves as a sublime accompaniment.
Drought was released on Amazon Prime on April 2nd and is now available to rent or purchase. If you want more stories with authentic representation, you have to support the ones being made. Drought deserves the support.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic