Experiencing the healing power of nature from the perspective of an average person makes Find Me (2019) the most relatable outdoors film you’ll watch this summer.
Released to critical acclaim, the latest film from writer/director Tom Huang is a charming dramedy whose story is paradoxically familiar, yet different.
Familiar in that it follows the modern outdoor trope of an inexperienced urban-dwelling protagonist gingerly heading into the unknown wilderness for the first time. Different in that a plot twist ultimately takes the story in an unexpected direction.
Find Me is not another adventure film. Rather, it’s an outdoor film for the rest of us.
There are no larger-than-life athletes pushing the physical limits of a sport. Nor are there extreme weather conditions testing the limits of human survival. Its connection to viewers lies in its normalcy; the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery is both believable and relatable.
“I wanted to dial back the dramatic rhetoric a bit and demonstrate that discovering the outdoors is very accessible, very enjoyable, and you don’t have a climb a sheer rock face with no ropes to see it,” explained Huang.
For those who didn’t grow up in a family of outdoor enthusiasts, being introduced to the outdoors is an exhilarating and unforgettable experience. It is that experience that Huang hoped to capture.
Huang thinks that some people are intrigued by the outdoors, but are reluctant to explore due to the extremeness that characterizes most outdoor adventure films.
“I think there are a lot of people out there who love watching shows about nature, and love looking at pictures of amazing places. They want to check it out someday, but never actually do it. I believe that part of it is that movies and TV tend to show these places in a very dramatic context where people are getting their butts kicked,” he said.
Huang cited 127 Hours (a running joke throughout the film) as an example.
“In the film, there is this stunning landscape. We see a guy who bikes into the middle of the desert and then has to cut his arm off with a pen. People see these things and I think start thinking, “I have to do that to see something cool in nature? No thanks.”
Find Me resonates with viewers because it is relatable in its portrayal of the outdoor novice experience.
The film opens with Joe (Huang), a burned out accountant who spends his days going through predictable motions: crunching numbers at work, alternating parenting duties of his young son with his ex-wife, taking care of his elderly Chinese American parents, and ordering the same takeout meal for dinner,
Joe’s banal, routine existence and introverted personality is a stark contrast to his adventurous friend and extroverted co-worker, Amelia (Sara Amini). Amelia’s enthusiasm for the outdoors is met with polite resistance from Joe, who would prefer to enjoy the outdoors by watching nature films from the safety of his couch.
That familiar safety, however, is shattered when Amelia fails to show up to work one day. Weeks pass with no leads into her disappearance. Eventually, Joe receives a postmarked note from Utah in Amelia’s handwriting urging him to come find her.
Spurred into action, Joe embarks on a trip to Utah to try to locate Amelia, who has left video clues in the form of SD cards placed around several national parks that include Zion, Death Valley, and Yosemite.
His first stop is in Zion National Park, where another of Amelia’s letters is waiting for “A Chinese Man” at the desk of a hotel lobby. The message instructs him to go to “The Narrows”, the famed Zion Canyon hike where the walls are a thousand feet high and the river is sometimes a mere 30 feet wide.
While sitting in a local restaurant, Joe overhears a conversation between two students about the hike that he is about to embark on. He asks them for advice, and the first thing they ask him is whether or not he is wearing the proper shoes. Worried, Joe looks down at his non-grippy bluchers- a definitive no.
Later on, we see a bareheaded Joe (who is now sporting new sneakers and accessorizing with a cheap drawstring souvenir backpack) staring at the Virgin River before him, wondering where the trail is (not realizing he has to go upstream to get where he needs to go).
As he tries to locate the next clue, he suddenly becomes more aware of his majestic natural surroundings. He pauses in wonderment, to take it all in. This is a pivotal point, where viewers can feel the emotion of the moment.
Reflecting on how a visit to Zion served as the inspiration behind the film, Huang said,
“I’m not sure if the feeling was exactly Wanderlust when I hit inspiration to make the film, more like a sudden connection to an amazing outdoors space that was… a moment.”
Huang described the awe he felt surrounded by the towering, smooth red and chocolate canyon walls stretching up into the sky.
“I was just alone in this canyon, looking up the canyon walls, and it just felt amazing, to be alone with this feat of nature. I thought to myself, you know everyone should experience this. I realized that I wanted to make a movie where people point at the screen and say, ‘I want to go there.’ And that’s how I started thinking about the story for Find Me.”
Attention to Detail
Joe’s character and journey are extremely relatable. The film’s accuracy both in its portrayal of characters and fine points that only someone who has experienced desert national parks help make this film appealing.
From trying to navigate the road in front of him through a bug splattered windshield, to neglecting to wear a hat in the middle of the desert, Huang puts great care into every detail.
“It was actually pretty simple when I thought about Joe’s character and what he believed ‘active wear’ meant and just applied to him- it does make for a certain noobie look, especially to gearheads,” said Huang.
As the film progresses, Joe undergoes a subtle transformation. He displays more confidence in his outdoor demeanor, while slowly upgrading his gear.
“A lot of the ‘evolution’ of Joe from kind of ignorant city slicker to more of informed hiker comes from what I see a lot of when I’m hiking in national parks. Sometimes I see what people are wearing, like sandals or chunky heels or not bringing water and I just think, ‘What are you thinking??’ And then I realize that’s probably how I started when I first began actively hiking and there is a bit of a learning curve,” he explained.
Ultimately, in Find Me, Huang seeks to demonstrate the healing powers of nature, and emphasizes that nature is accessible to all.
“Basically, I want people to feel inspired in some way. I hope to inspire people to get out and see these places I feature in the film. I make it clear that these are amazing places where all you need to do is park your car, get out and hike a bit and you’re there,” he finished.
103 minutes in length, Find Me has played at festivals across the US, winning awards (Best Feature Film in Atlanta, Best Screenplay in Rhode Island, an Audience Award in Oregon) and rated 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It is currently available on Video-On-Demand (VOD) on Amazon.com