“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”
— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1878)
“Me and him are totally different.”
— Leo (Caleb Galati), brother of Wendel (Steven J. Mihaljevich), in The Misguided (2018)
Oh, poor Leo.
From the first minute that he appears on screen, Leo is a familiar type. He’s handsome He’s friendly, though there are always hints that he has secrets that he’s hiding. He’s ambitious but he’s not particularly driven. He seems like the type who is more likely to have a good plan than to understand how to actually pull it off. We’ve all known someone like Leo. Leo has just dropped out of college and he’s also just been kicked out of the place where he was staying.
What’s Leo to do? Sleep on the streets or maybe spend a few weeks living with his brother, Wendel? Looking at Wendel, it’s hard not to feel that you’ve stepped into a time portal and caught a glimpse of who Leo is going to be in another few years. When Wendel isn’t using drugs, he’s dealing them. Wendel is friendly, except for when he’s going out of his way to be menacing. Wendel is charismatic and even people who should know better are drawn to Wendel. And yet, it’s also hard not to suspect that Wendel might be a sociopath. Like Leo, Wendel will be a familiar character to most viewers. We’ve all known a Wendel.Along with having a place to stay, Wendel also has a car. The only problem is that it’s not actually his car. The car belongs to Wendel’s ex-girlfriend, Sanja (Jasmine Nibali). When Sanja and her sister, Vesna (Katherine Langford, who viewers may recognize from 13 Reasons Why) come by to get the car, they meet Leo. And soon, Sanja and Leo are a couple.
Of course, not everyone is happy about the idea of Sanja and Leo being together. Vesna is convinced that Leo is just as bad as his brother. Sanja’s father (Athan Bellos) is almost violently protective and is not happy to come home and find Leo relaxing in the family’s swimming pool. As for Wendel, he claims not to care but you get the feeling that he’s lying. That’s actually a feeling that you get a lot with Wendel. But Sanja doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Soon, she and Leo are even talking about leaving Perth and moving to Melbourne together. It sounds like a nice plan but will Leo be able to escape from his older brother’s destructive influence?
At times, it feels as if The Misguided is a plotless film but that feeling is just as deceptive as one of Wendel’s stories. The film’s story plays out at a pace that is almost leisurely but always steady. Whether we’re watching Wendel’s passive aggressive interaction with his brother or the genuinely sweet scenes of Leo and Sanja exploring Perth, we’re always aware that Leo is ultimately going to have to choose whether to escape his brother or to remain forever in Wendel’s shadow. Shannon Alexander’s direction emphasizes gritty realism with a few stylistic flourishes. Occasionally, the film speeds up. A few scenes end with a freeze frame. At one point, the image flickers as if Wendel’s drug-addled consciousness has infected the film itself. In the style of early Godard, all of this suggests that we’re watching a world that has become unbalanced.
It’s also a well-acted movie. The characters all seem real and, as a result, you care about them even if they sometimes seem to be incapable of doing the right thing. Caleb Galati and Jasmine Nibali have a really nice chemistry. They’re a cute couple and you can’t help but hope that things work out well for them. The sibling relationship between Sanja and Vesna, with its mix of jealousy and sincere concern, felt real as well. I’m the youngest of four sisters. I could definitely relate. I also particularly liked the performance of Athan Bellos, who is so intense and overprotective as Sanja and Vesna’s father that he’s actually a bit scary at times.
And then there’s Steven J. Mihaljevich, who is force of destructive nature in the role of Wendel. Mihaljevich plays Wendel as the type of person who will smile even as he tells you absolutely the worst thing that he possibly could. At the same time, Mihaljevich is also charismatic enough that you believe that Sanja could have actually been attracted to him before meeting Leo. As played by Mihaljevich, Wendel is the bad influence that we’ve all known at some point in our life. Whenever Wendel talks to anyone, you’re never quite sure whether he’s going to laugh and kill them but you’re always intrigued enough to want to find out.
The Misguided will soon be available on Amazon, Google, Vimeo and iTunes.