Let’s move past the fact that the found footage genre was rendered stale years ago. Move past the fact that most films of this kind are lazy, uneventful, and boring. Move past the cheap production design, bad acting, and uninteresting conclusions. Bogging this review down with all of the things found footage films get wrong is fruitless. Instead, our time is better spent discussing everything that Willow Creek gets right.
The film is about a Bigfoot enthusiast named Jim (Bryce Johnson), who travels to northern California with his supportive yet skeptical girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), to document his search of an actual Sasquatch. Ever since Jim saw the famed Patterson-Gimlin film from the late ‘60s (which, apparently, captured a Sasquatch on film), it has been his dream to see one in the flesh.
During their drive, Jim and Kelly playfully debate the existence of Bigfoot, thankfully straying away from just petty arguments of he said, she said. Kelly never entertains the thought that Bigfoot(s) actually exists, but that isn’t of issue. She’s here to support her boyfriend, and she does a fine job doing so. When Jim records himself giving a painfully awkward testimonial, for example, Kelly, a budding actress herself, offers words of encouragement instead of laughing in his face.
The first thing I noticed in these early scenes was the natural chemistry between Johnson and Gilmore. Throughout the film, Gilmore in particular delivers one of the most natural performances I’ve seen in years. Really. IMDb currently lists 46 TV and movie credits for her, but I can’t recall any of those performances. Make no mistake, my lack of awareness should be taken as a compliment, as Gilmore is clearly an actress who’s able to fall into a character and never draw attention to her acting. Honestly, for the first 15 minutes of Willow Creek, I wondered if writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait had struck gold by casting two supremely authentic unknowns. Johnson occasionally hams it up, but that happens very rarely. Truly, I was sold by these two from the beginning. The movie wouldn’t work without them.
The film’s insistence on authenticity continues as Jim and Kelly reach Willow Creek. In town (the movie was actually shot in the real Willow Creek), Kelly films Jim conducting a handful of clumsy interviews that are humorously spot-on. Jim stammers over his words, calls for in-camera retakes, interrupts his subjects when he shouldn’t, and so on. Additionally, Goldthwait has said that most of the people interviewed in the film had no idea they were being filmed for a fictional found footage movie. Goldthwait kept his crew small and his budget ultra slim; no lights, no expensive microphones, just a goofy guy with a Bigfoot fascination, accompanied by his polite girlfriend. In short, there is very little acting in Willow Creek, which is high praise for any found footage film, or, really, any film in general.
Once Jim and Kelly enter the nearby woods in Bluff Creek (where the Patterson-Gimlin film was shot), the film organically adopts a tense vibe. One that is punctuated with one of the most thrilling movie sequences I’ve seen so far this year: a 19-minute long shot of Jim and Kelly being awoken in the middle of the night by strange noises around their tent. Throughout this scene, the camera never moves and the tension becomes unbearable. And it is during this sequence that Alexie Gilmore exudes the best of her talent, subtly transforming Kelly from staunch opponent to scared shitless believer. I was so wowed by the effectiveness of the scene’s simplicity. The scene itself is enough to make the movie worth it.
Bobcat Goldthwait makes odd films about odd people. They’re dark, funny, and void of judgment. It would be so easy for Goldthwait to make fun of Bigfoot believers with Willow Creek. But rather than going for the easy laugh, he roots his film in truth. He could’ve filmed that tent scene in a cozy living room and added the creepy sound effects in post-production. Instead, he hiked to the middle of Bluff Creek, told his actors to get in a tent, and had members of his small crew circle around them and make Sasquatch-like noises. Whether you like found footage films or not, believe in Bigfoot or don’t – it’s obvious that Willow Creek knows what it’s doing, and is doing it damn well. B+