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The opening credits of How to Blow Up a Pipeline state, “A Film By Daniel Goldhaber, Ariela Barer, Jordan Sjol, and Daniel Garber.” This phrase, usually reserved for directors, here includes Goldhaber’s primary collaborators. It’s a fitting change for a film all about collective action. It’s a fitting change for a movie based on a radical manifesto.
That manifesto, also titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline, was written by Andreas Malm and was published last year. It’s a critique of non-violence in climate activism, a suggestion that destruction of property in pursuit of sabotage is not only morally justified but morally urgent. It was relatively well-received considering we live in a society that fetishizes pacifism. But of course it had its detractors — as will this film.
The genius of the adaptation is that it transposes these radical ideas into the entertainment of a heist movie and the pathos of a character study. It does both these things really, really well. All movies are propaganda, and sometimes explicitly political films can end up feeling cheap and manipulative. There is nothing cheap here — except maybe its well-used indie film budget.
Each of the film’s characters represent a different background and a different perspective. There’s Xochitl (Ariela Barer), a college dropout mourning her mother who died in a heat wave, her friend Theo (Sasha Lane), a young woman dying from a rare cancer caused by pollution, and Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), a do-gooder who’s the most skeptical of the group. Xochitl teams up with her former classmate Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a doom-scrolling film student who wants to do something more meaningful, and Michael (Forrest Goodluck), an amateur bomb maker whose home in North Dakota has been overrun with oil workers. Shawn then recruits Dwayne (Jake Weary), a Texas local whose land was taken away, and grungy couple Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), seasoned ecoterrorists when they’re not on a bender.
The film is allowed to argue with itself through these characters, but they never slip into archetypes. A heist movie doesn’t work if you don’t care about the people. An action movie doesn’t work if you don’t care about the people. I cared deeply about each of these people.
Some of that is the sharp writing — the character development is as tight as the action — but it’s also the actors. This is one of the best young casts assembled in years with everyone at that place between up-and-comer and already arrived. There is a palpable chemistry in each individual connection as well as their group dynamic. At first, it felt forced to have such a wide range of people collaborating. By the end, I would have believed this was based on a true story.
The cast and writing are matched by the rest of the craft. The film is shot by Tehillah De Castro who also shot Tahara. With just these two features De Castro has already become one of my favorite DPs. The use of 16mm grounds the film in realism even during the most heightened action moments. The score by Gavin Brivik keeps the tension high. And there’s a reason editor Daniel Garber is one of the names after a film by.
This is my Ocean’s 8 except that it’s actually a good movie. And the stakes aren’t a necklace at the Met Gala but the fate of our planet. Oh and it’s EXPLICITLY GAY. Like very gay. Not only is Theo and Alisha’s relationship central to the film but there are a lot of queer women involved in this project — Ariela Barer, Sasha Lane, producer Isa Mazzei.
And yet the gay heist excitement doesn’t brush over the film’s harsh realities. Some people may find it inspiring, but it’s not suggesting everyone go out and do ecoterrorism. The risk is extremely high for these characters. They exist — we exist — in a system eager to incarcerate people, especially when those people aren’t white. Death is possible, arrest is likely, and the film shows why these individuals decided the risks were worth it. Whether or not ecoterrorism is advisable isn’t the issue here — the film just makes clear that it’s ethical.
The limits of political filmmaking and the limits of personal action are two topics I think about a lot. I want to believe that movies can create change, I want to believe that people can create change. I have evidence for both. And yet sometimes filmmaking and humanity feel hopeless. I left How to Blow Up a Pipeline filled with hope.
Throughout the movie, characters make jokes about the world ending. It’s the sort of casual climate fatalism that’s easy to embrace. But the world doesn’t have to end. It shouldn’t have to end. All we need to do is find some hope. And maybe a couple bombs.