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"How to Blow Up a Pipeline": Eco-Terrorism Blows Up At The Art House

Ariela Barer gets an education on "How to Blow Up a Pipeline" / Photo courtesy of Neon Films

Ariela Barer gets an education on "How to Blow Up a Pipeline" / Photo courtesy of Neon Films

Daniel Goldhaber's How to Blow Up A Pipeline moves along on its film festivals' journey, stopping at the Miami Film Festival. His first film, Cam (2018), was an intimate techno-horror exercise with Madeline Brewer partaking in a juicy acting showcase. Better known as the much-suffering Janine from the TV series The Handmaid's TaleBrewer tackled with relish the role of a social-media sexual worker haunted by a case of split personality. The movie is well worth the time of genre fans and is currently available on Netflix.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a step forward in scope and ambition. True to its title, the movie follows a crew of disaffected young people pent up on sabotaging an oil pipeline running across the Arizona desert. Each one has a personal reason to participate in a political act that goes against the law.

Xochitl (Ariela Barer) is the leader, a college dropout disenchanted with the slow progress of non-violent activism. Her zealousness brings along Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a fellow student who debates her position and ends up on her side. Her best friend Theo (Sasha Lane) and her girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson) come along for the ride. She reaches out to Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a self-made explosives expert with a YouTube channel. Northwestern punks Logan (Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth) are two social media recruits. Finally, there is Arizona good-ole-boy Dwayne (Jake Weary), a local who knows the territory.

Their motives are explored in a series of flashbacks that break the linear story to reveal how the gang gets together, sets up the sabotage, and waits for the result. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a criminal procedural drama and an idealist soap opera. It runs like clockwork, ripe with tension, but it would be more interesting if it questioned the beliefs and actions of the characters. Like many other caper films, they fall for the self-serving canard of the victimless crime.

We may agree that oil companies embody the worst manifestation of capitalism. And yes, global warming is the existential crisis of our times, but a disruption like our heroes' plan could bring unforeseen consequences for innocent civilians. Xochitl and her partners have the tunnel vision of guerrilla fighters unleashing a civil war, looking the other way at the prospect of collateral damage.

The Scooby Gang of wanna-be eco-terrorists has plenty of vivid characters. Sasha Lane steals the picture as the passionate Theo. She is - spoiler alert - an alcoholic trying to sober up as she faces terminal cancer. She and Alisha are romantic and professional partners, working in a dead-end housekeeping job. Their relationship feels true, even as it takes on the most dramatic plot elements. Lane broke through in American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016), a love letter to aimless, poor young people. She cannot hit a false note even working on an eminently commercial endeavor, like Amazon’s failed 2020 remake of the British cult series Utopia (Dennis Kelly, 2013). You will never catch her acting.

Forrest Goodluck gets some inspiration in his own backyard on "How to Blow Up a Pipeline" / Photo courtesy of Neon Films

Forrest Goodluck gets some inspiration in his own backyard on "How to Blow Up a Pipeline" / Photo courtesy of Neon Films

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is at its best when it explores the tension of class differences among the group. Most are poor, but education is a cleaver equally powerful as money to separate people. Dwayne is a rancher who lost his land to the pipeline. His plight has nothing to do with abstract ideas but actual economic survival. He calls off a couple of college boys recording his testimony for a documentary, which will do nothing for him except to “get his story out.” He sure as hell is not going to feed his kids with awareness. But is violence the answer? His wife hints at the question out of desperate self-preservation. What will she do if he ends up in jail? Shawn is one of those college boys who coasts the illusion of doing something. Certainly, the sabotage will not get Dwayne his land back. It will just stick it to the man for a bit.

Rowan and Sean offer a different class dynamic in their relationship. At a pivotal moment, she reveals her romantic partner comes from money. He can always call the lawyer his dad keeps on retainer if he gets in trouble with the law. This kind of tension is rich in drama. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, 2019) was more successful at exploring it, reversing the gender of the couple. Olivia Cooke was a rich girl in a rock band, slumming with Ruben (Liz Ahmed), a proletariat drummer going deaf. Then again, it might be unfair to demand How to Blow Up a Pipeline to be more insightful in these matters, considering all the tasks it sets for itself: define a large cast of characters, explain and execute a criminal plan, and ponder the ethical implications.

For all its seriousness, it is not above pulling a fake mid-run cliffhanger when Michael suffers an explosive setback. The Native American character carries the least subtle discourse as a burden. His backstory centers around a debate with his mother about tolerance for white people working within the limits of their reservation. He goes passive-aggressive by turning his back on her proposal to work for a foundation and takes a menial job at a convenience store. Of course, his real calling is to produce DIY videos to teach how to make explosives. The movie gracefully composes a diverse cast. It is, perhaps, the stealthiest progressive move it musters.

For all its righteous anger, at heart, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a crime caper movie. Instead of a gang of robbers out to make a killing, you get bleeding-heart environmental activists going for a grand gesture that would - could? - inspire a revolution against Big Oil. The sense of importance does not preclude a crucial ingredient: It still needs a final, surprise twist to send the audience out with a smile. This gotcha moment may feel satisfactory to true believers but undermines the carefully constructed sense of reality by giving a particular character the divine gift of omniscience. Perhaps the best audience for the movie is young and angry, those who can look at the screen and see themselves on it.

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