West Michigan (2021)

Small films about family relationships have become more ubiquitous in recent years, but it’s always intriguing when families make their own films about families. West Michigan is a small drama about the relationship between a brother and sister, produced by a brother and sister team. Riley Warmoth writes and directs himself and his sister, Chloe Ray Warmoth, in a story that details the complexity, and humor, of typical familial drama.

West Michigan gently tells the story of Charlie and Hannah, siblings who travel up Michigan’s coast to visit their dying grandfather. Hannah is struggling with a breakup and overbearing ex-boyfriend, Charlie with trying to understand his sister and maintain a lackadaisical distance. When the car breaks down and the pair are forced to camp out, their struggles as siblings become clearer, especially Hannah’s increasingly desperate search for meaning and sense of place.

In many ways, West Michigan contains a somewhat predictable arc—siblings who have difficulty connecting find solace on the road—but does a good job of enhancing those elements via the charm of the central characters and their developing bond. The pair make for a strong screen team, sympathetic and realistic without coming off as cloying or artificial. The lived-in atmosphere of the landscape and the connection between the brother and sister make the film entertaining without slipping into sentimentality or maudlin ruminations on life and death. Hannah is very much a teenager, struggling with her place in the world, hyper-aware of herself and the things that she wants to be (when she knows what those are). Charlie is appropriately befuddled as he tries to understand just what is going on with a sister who responds to every overture and inquiry with hostility and sarcasm. But their relationship runs deeper than that, and the audience senses that we’re watching a deeper arc being played out on the screen.

Michigan’s coast acts as a secondary character in the drama, framing Charlie and Hannah’s relationship as they drive, camp out, and come into conflict. While we’re used to seeing the edges of the American coast, this is the first time I can recall such interest in the Michigan landscape in particular. The film highlights the way that landscape informs on relationships, providing a backdrop for the story to unfold as well as interacting with the narrative itself.

To its credit, West Michigan doesn’t try to do too much. It’s not attempting to solve the problems of the universe or human relationships, nor does it propose to resolve its central sibling relationship simply by setting the two on the road. Charlie and Hannah are close, but their issues exist and probably always will. There are indications of life moving ahead, of Hannah learning to shift in her focus and move on, and of Charlie and Hannah drawing closer together without fully fixing their problems with their family and each other. This is the kind of low-key family drama that achieves a realistic, emotional catharsis without having to solve everything.

West Michigan is now available on VOD.