M, 91 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

If it isn’t the ultimate road trip, then it is surely right up there. Along the entire western coastline of the Americas, from the Alaskan wilderness to the rugged south of Patagonia, a truly awesome adventure. Irresistible for anyone drawn to the spirit of the road journey, both unexpected and planned for, with the kind of tasks that independent travel involves in between.

Australian surfer Matty Hannon got a taste for travel early. Tiring of his desk job in Melbourne, and longing to be in touch with nature, he took off to Indonesia for a spell. An image in a book of an indigenous boy and a dragonfly had made a big impression, so he went to its source, the Mentawai Islands, to experience the rainforest and traditional culture for himself.

Living in an unpowered thatched hut, he spent his days surfing and painting when the break wasn’t good. As surfing communities know, the Mentawai Islands off the west coast of Sumatra offer some of the world’s best waves.

Living the traditional life, he stayed for five years, towards the end of which he began recording his experience among the tribal people. It had begun to sow the seeds of his next big adventure, a solo motorcycle odyssey, surfing his way down the west coast of the Americas from north to south.

Everything he owned would be on his bike, or in his purpose-built sidecar

Everything he owned would be on his bike, or in his purpose-built sidecar. Being free and alone on the road was going to feel fantastic. For those who watch this documentary, its musical soundtrack captures the mood.

Matty wasn’t that long on the road before he had company. Though it was long enough to gather a stunning collection of scenes, including drone shots, while fishing the rivers, and camping alone on thickly wooded hillsides in bear and moose habitat.

While pausing for a surf further south, he met Heather Hillier, a small farm holder who grew sustainable organic produce for sale in Vancouver. When Matty was on the road again, it wasn’t long before Heather let him know that she had sold her farm to buy a 500cc motorbike for when they met up in Mexico. Soon the production of the documentary became a joint effort.

Heather proved very plucky, a real asset. She had never ridden a motorbike before, agreed to a relatively dangerous expedition on horseback when the couple decided to get off the highways and trek the coast on unmarked trails. Some of the film’s most heart-stopping footage captures their sturdy, little horses scrambling over the wastelands and dunes near big pine plantations along the coast of Chile.

Awesome travelogue, sometimes awkward, but a moving diary of individual growth and personal philosophy

In other respects, the doco is a classic road trip. There’s that definitive shot of the open road at Brooks Range in Alaska. A beckoning highway, wide in the foreground then tapering into the mountainous distance. This image is matched near the end with a brief scene of Matty, a solitary figure walking into the Patagonian mountain wilderness. What a task the supervising editors, Michael Balson and Harriet Clutterbuck, must have had to help whittle down all the raw ‘footage’.

Overall, the journey to Ushuaia in Argentina took two and a half years. What Matty wants to say with his story took much longer to articulate, and it comes across now a touch awkwardly, though entirely sincere.

It took time to integrate and reflect on his experiences meeting indigenous people and minority groups along the way. Eventually, he found a place for interviews he had collected with shamans in Sumatra, an Alaskan mask carver, former Zapatista rebels and Mapuche leaders.

Through his contact with indigenous people, Matty has come to share their animist concept of the earth as a living entity, with which we should feel as one. Even while we share the underlying concerns and sentiments of his voiceover, the homespun philosophising will take a bit of indulgence.

After some difficult times together along the way, Heather leaves to return to Canada. It had felt, she explains as the camera captures a low point, like ‘latching on’ to someone else’s journey. For his part, Matty says he wouldn’t have done it without her.

With its gallery of images, The Road to Patagonia is a stunning travelogue. As a diary of personal growth, individual and within a romantic relationship, it is honest and moving.

First published in the Canberra Times on 28 June 2024.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

Featured image: Matty Hannon and Heather Hiller in The Road to Patagonia, courtesy Garage Films and Madman Entertainment