*** (out of four)
It would be easy to overlook a movie like “The Retrieval.” It contains no big stars. It’s opening only at the AMC River East. And after the extraordinary but difficult experience of “Twelve Years a Slave,” some viewers might admit a less-than-enormous desire to spend their Saturday night on a film about slavery.
Still, hopefully some will seek out “The Retrieval,” which is neither as great nor as harrowing as Steve McQueen’s Oscar winner, but has won awards at multiple festivals. In 1864, uncertain teenager Will (Ashton Sanders) and his mean uncle Marcus (Keston John) assist white men in capturing escaped slaves—referred to as “lost property.” Their superior demands they trek off on their own and find Nate (Tishuan Scott, winner of the breakthrough performance award at SXSW 2013), who Marcus tells Will is especially valuable. Considering the days-long distance traveled, it seems a little questionable that no one gets lost and that the searchers find their mark so easily. But whatever. They tell Nate he must return to speak with his brother; Nate doesn’t know his sibling is already dead.
“The Retrieval” does hinge on the often-frustrating wait until a pivotal secret is revealed. Yet this small-scale, compelling effort from writer-director Chris Eska doesn’t overplay the disclosure. Instead, the filmmaker uses deception as a piece of complex characterizations, the information becoming crucial as Will befriends Nate, the only person who’s ever looked out for him. Eska strikes just the right balance of patience and progress; the story’s tension only gains from its quiet.
Meanwhile, the uniformly well-acted drama captures timelessness in its human interactions, showing that perhaps the only thing that matters is who’s in our life and how we treat each other. “The Retrieval” has guilt and cooperation, self-interest and generosity, and a moving demonstration of the rite of passage that is considering the cowardly path and choosing otherwise.
Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.