Gasoline Rainbow Review: The Ross Brothers’ Formally Extravagant Teenage Daydream

The film is rich in compositions that seem to cut to the essence of the characters’ yearnings.

Gasoline Rainbow
Photo: MUBI

Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’s Gasoline Rainbow is an unusually poetic road film, as it has less in common with cut-and-paste teen party flicks than it does with the existentially freighted sensibilities of The Endless Summer, Two-Lane Blacktop, and even The Outwaters. Blending documentary and fictional elements together as they have in films like Western and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the Ross brothers fashion an aesthetic that’s something like the best of both worlds. Gasoline Rainbow’s teenagers are rendered with unusual realism, while the imagery has the resonance and intensity that speaks of the resources and planning that’s typically associated with fictional films. It feels simultaneously “of the moment” and retrospective—a subtle yet formally extravagant teenage daydream.

For viewers who’re removed from their high school years, the realism of Gasoline Rainbow may require acclimation. The film’s teens—Tony (Tony Abuerto), Micah (Micah Bunch), Nichole (Nichole Dukes), Nathaly (Nathaly Garcia) and Makai (Makai Garza)—aren’t differentiated by clichés. There isn’t a “brain,” a “jock,” and so forth—and they don’t have the hyper-articulate sensibilities of the characters from, say, many a Richard Linklater film. They’re just kids, and the Rosses toss us into the stew of their lives without much orientation.

There are long stretches of teens smoking weed and listening to music and speaking in the banalities of how people talk when they’re on cruise control. There are no adult writer’s contrivances to serve as a buffer throughout the film, to either render the protagonists more explicable to us, or to prop up our own myths of ourselves when we were that age.


Tony, Micah, Nichole, Nathaly, and Makai decide on the spur of the moment to travel west over 500 miles from their small Oregon hometown to the Pacific coast. They’re the prototypical American children on the eve of adulthood, ready for a coming-of-age quest. Or are they? Cinematic road trips are frequently celebrations of privilege, but an aura of financial and domestic terror haunts these kids. As they move from one city and hang-out to the next, their chitter-chatter attains weight, peppered with references to estranged family, racism, and money problems. As in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, one of American cinema’s most moving and granular portraits of alcoholism, the film derives part of its power from the Rosses’ sense of how people reveal themselves quickly and accidently in the midst of ordinary cacophony.

The trip that drives the film is less about getting loaded and laid—these teens don’t seem especially interested in sex—than marking one’s place in time. The shock of Gasoline Rainbow springs from the viewer realizing how rarely teens are allowed to be earnest in movies. These kids are poignantly nice, and the Rosses have cannily shaped the film so that their depth of character arises gradually throughout the 110-minute running time.

Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me comes to mind, as the young characters in that film were also unusually thoughtful and sensitive, and the commonality uniting the characters of Stand by Me and Gasoline Rainbow is a matter of dire straits. These are portraits of outsiders, and, come to think of it, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders also fits the pattern.

YouTube video

The Rosses don’t condescend to their characters as woebegone victims either; one of the exhilarations of Gasoline Rainbow resides in discovering the profound resources of these protagonists. They’re up for anything, exhibiting the intoxicating malleability of youth. When their van is vandalized after a party somewhere in the desert, leaving them stranded, they hitchhike toward their loosely defined destination, meeting people casually and openly and following trails wherever they may lead. The destruction of the van is a gift, and an intuitive symbol of how we must come to find and forge our own way toward maturity.


The people they meet are open and kind as well, suggesting that we’re witnessing a world of outsiders hidden in plain sight and governed by a kind of wanderer’s code that operates in stark contrast to the hate machine that governs social media discourse. There’s sentimentality in the film’s vision of this life, but anyone who’s bummed around and talked to people outside of their phones knows that this generosity isn’t merely a figment of the Rosses’ imagination.

As Tony, Micah, Nichole, Nathaly, and Makai put miles between themselves and their hometown, Gasoline Alley becomes a celebration of what critic Greil Marcus, in reference to folk music, called the “old, weird America.” Near a bar, where they drink and dance and soak up the scene, two heavily tatted young warriors of the road give them tips on hopping a ride aboard a train, like Woody Guthrie might’ve done. In exchange, the gang gives them their leftover bar food. Along a waterfront, a metal rocker-looking guy tells of how he had to shave his long hair after an accident with an industrial mixer, while the jungle of plants in his vivid, lived-in home with his partner suggests hard-earned peace after a wild early life.

Gasoline Rainbow, which was shot by the Ross brothers themselves, is rich in compositions that seem to cut to the essence of the characters’ yearnings. Intense images keep hitting you at a rapid clip in a hallucinatory haze. A gleaming shot of a golden cornfield pays homage to rural America while suggesting the vastness of life that these kids seek to experience. Bridges underneath a canopy of trees have a haunting sense of slumber about them, and the Pacific coastline of the film’s climax, dotted with shipwreck remains, is misty and ineffable, redolent of a “found” impressionist painting that encapsulates the characters’ exuberance and fear.


The tossed-off moments throughout the film are just as monumental: the rays of sun dotting a girl’s hair as she leans out of a window, singing Guns-N-Roses’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” or the silhouettes of the gang as they stand against a stark desert-scape, a horror-movie image reframed as a vision quest of unity. Accompanying these images is a sonic tapestry that blends voices with the music and sounds of the settings, a perpetual humming of life.

The gift that Tony, Micah, Nichole, Nathaly, and Makai seem to possess is an ability to appreciate the rapture of minute moments even as they wrestle with titanic forces of uncertainty and heartbreak. The Rosses share this gift, and the harmony they forge with their subjects is hopeful and soul-nourishing. The fine-grained beauty of Gasoline Rainbow suggests a subterranean America, an America of true communal nurturing, an “old, weird America” that we can barely seem to acknowledge in the mediated world. Watching the film, you sense that, perhaps, it’s the denial of this weird America that fertilizes modern American alienation.

 Cast: Tony Abuerto, Micah Bunch, Nichole Dukes, Nathaly Garcia, Makai Garza  Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross  Screenwriter: Davey Ramsay, Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross  Distributor: MUBI  Running Time: 110 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2023

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

The Last Stop in Yuma County Review: A Darkly Funny Shoot ’Em Up in the Arizona Desert

Next Story

Interview: Hamaguchi Rysuke on Music and Movement in Evil Does Not Exist and Gift