Thirteen-year-old Jolene Cox (Drew Barrymore) is looking forward to her fourteenth birthday in a couple of days' time, mostly because it means she will be back home, for she and her father Charlie (Matt Frewer) have been taking a road trip around various national parks and monuments, and she cannot wait for the holiday to end, the whole thing has held very little interest for her. However, the experience will be dragged out a little longer as the gas station they were counting on for a refuel turns out to be deserted, leaving Charlie to push their car to the next stop, and that's a trailer park which has no fuel either. Therefore they will have to wait for the next delivery - but someone is watching.
Someone with designs on Jolene, and it wasn't the director Meiert Avis, a man best known for his extensive work in the music video world, here making a rare feature film. Far From Home was essentially one of those American indie thrillers that showed up around the turn of the eighties into the nineties and beyond, a subgenre which concentrated on character and interesting locations for their casts to inhabit. This was a typical example, and for a while Barrymore seemed set to settle in these for the rest of her career until she managed to star in bigger budget, higher profile work, leaving matters like this a part of the past as indie thrillers discovered swearing, gore and Quentin Tarantino.
Back in 1989, Drew was fresh out of rehab which she had been admitted to at the age of thirteen, a sad state of affairs the tabloid press had lapped up; seeing how level-headed she became, it's possibly a good thing it's easy to forget her "wild child" days. With Far From Home, that sleazy side wasn't so much an element of her screen persona as it was in the way Avis' camera took her in, one scene played out with her wearing a bikini and another in a wet T-shirt, something that could make you uncomfortable as you're not entirely sure of how the audience is being pushed to react to her. When the plot develops into a serial killer suspense piece, you begin to "get" what the point was: Jolene may look like a young woman, but she remains a young girl, and must be protected.
Funny way of going about it, you might think, emphasising the sexual angle, especially when Jolene finds herself attracted to the local bad boy teen Jimmy (Andras Jones) who introduces himself by running an ice cube over her bare arm in lingering fashion. He's patently a deeply troubled youth, with no idea of how to comport himself in a reasonable way judging by his tendency to lash out at all and sundry, including Jolene when she feels he is coming on too strong and tries to politely reject him. Interestingly, Charlie, who dotes over his daughter, is rather ineffectual when it comes to guiding her, rendering this as much a cautionary tale for dads as well as their offspring, though there was a degree of exaggeration when the murderer makes his presence felt.
This was supposed to be a thriller after all, but there were hints that it could quite as easily have become an offbeat drama, wrapped up in the personalities even more than throwing electric fans into baths or blowing up cars with elaborate schemes. One issue with that was we were all too aware of who the killer was in spite of their supposed mystery status: Jimmy is the prime suspect, and if you know anything about how these things go he's just too obvious, which leaves a selection of others including the only culprit it could possibly be given the clues we have. But if as a conundrum it was a less than captivating example, there was a particularly vivid atmosphere of a place in the middle of nowhere, with well-chosen locations like the inhospitable desert or a half-finished building, that contributed to the desolation. Throw in some expert quirkiness from the dependable likes of Richard Masur, Susan Tyrrell, Dick Miller and Jennifer Tilly, and you had a modest movie that nonetheless crafted a tangible sense of peril and concern for its vulnerable lead. Music by Jonathan Elias.