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'Highway to Dhampus' highlights a humanitarian awakening against an inspiring backdrop
Gunner Wright, Rachel Hurd-Wood and Suesha Rana star in Highway to Dhampus. - photo by Josh Terry
"Highway to Dhampus" captures a world that is vast and intimate at the same time. Shot on location in Nepal, director Rick McFarland might have given viewers a silent sequence of dramatic landscapes and called it good. But the film's story reflects that same dichotomy and leaves you with a subtle message to ponder.

The story weaves between four characters. Colt Morgan (Gunner Wright) is an embedded war photojournalist who has been recruited to do a public relations job. His client is Elizabeth James (Rachel Hurd-Wood), a wealthy British celebrity who is hoping to distract the London tabloids with some charity work at an orphanage in Nepal.

Ajit Thapa (Raj Ballav Koirala) is the local pilot hired to transport this odd couple high into the mountains where Colt hopes to get some images of Elizabeth giving backpacks and school supplies to the orphaned children. The primary cast is completed by Laxmi (Suesha Rana), a teacher at the orphanage who harbors some obvious feelings for Ajit.

There is conflict from the start. Numbed by his mercenary-like career, Colt intrudes on the situation with mechanical bravado and rubs Laxmi the wrong way when he starts moving school benches around to make sure his photographs include the Himalayan backdrop. Elizabeth just wants the experience to be over and fails to understand why photos of her autographing the children's new textbooks will send the wrong message.

The potential relationship between Ajit and Laxmi is a counterpoint to the oblivious faux do-gooder behaviors of Colt and Elizabeth, but even they have potholes to navigate. Ajit may be Nepalese, but while Laxmi has spent her life in remote villages, he feels more connected to modern civilization and can't see a future with her.

"Highway" is driven by Elizabeth's humanitarian awakening. Several weeks after their initial visit, she brings Colt back to do more work for the children, and rather than hang back, she engages the children willingly. Her journey is represented visually, first hiding behind sunglasses and a heavy coat, then allowing her eyes to peer out from behind bright red salon hair. And finally, she emerges as a human being, her now-blonde hair pulled into a pony tail, ready to do serious work.

Her budding sincerity brings everyone else's shortcomings to the forefront. Colt resents Elizabeth's newfound generosity, and his guilt even drives him to undercut it. Ajit continues to wrestle with his own cynicism, tired of first-world misguided notions of how best to serve the third.

Just about every shot in "Highway" is framed against a scenic, peaceful backdrop, and the setting mutes and calms a story that could have been heavy-handed. Elizabeth may be an international celebrity, and her intrusion may be a two-dimensional threat to a three-dimensional world. But the problems of a tabloid celebrity pale against a Himalayan backdrop, and McFarland is able to evoke the human simplicity of his characters in a way that is deliberate instead of overblown.

Like 2013's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "Highway" also has a lesson for anyone who has ever picked up a camera (which in the 21st century, pretty much includes everyone). You must get out from behind your technology long enough to appreciate the wonders around you because a picture cannot evoke a moment you never lived.

"Highway to Dhampus" is rated PG for some adult themes. It is presented in a mix of English and Nepali with English subtitles.