A cinematic essay by queer film historian Jenni Olson, The Royal Road is a mixture of 16mm footage of California, and Olson’s voiceover musings. Vaguely themed around the titular Royal Road – aka El Camino Real – a historic highway connecting California’s 21 religious missions, Olson’s narration takes in her thoughts about growing up a ‘gender dysphoric tomboy’ and her deep desires for a series of women, as well as her ideas about California’s history – most notably the collective US blind spot surrounding the Mexican-America War – and her need for nostalgia. There’s also thoughts about classic cinema – from Sunset Boulevard to Vertigo – as well as various other things.
The Royal Road is a film that some will find oddly mesmeric, while others will think the whole thing is dull and self-indulgent. Unfortunately, I came down more on the latter side. There’s a stream of consciousness quality to the piece, where it jumps from subject to subject in an often seemingly random fashion. There’s an attempt to bring it together thematically – how personal history and world history merge, and how the urban environment and individual emotion come together – but the overall sensation is one of random thoughts that are less coherent that the film might hope.
Part of the problem is that while some of its thoughts and history lessons are fairly interesting, they’re generally anchored by dime store profundity that comes across as if it thinks it’s a lot deeper than it is. Even when Olson seems to be baring her soul, it’s like she’s got a grip of the edges of her being but not the centre. Sadly, her rather languorous voice doesn’t help, as it often feels sleepy and as if even she’s not sure whether she’s interested in what she’s saying or not.
I do realise though, that this is the sort of film some will adore – indeed, some reviews have bandied around the word ‘masterpiece’. Those who feel they are closer to Olson’s worldview could indeed find it transcendent as it weaves through its varied thoughts and subjects. And it is undoubted that much of the footage of California is beautiful, with the 16mm camera giving the modern world a nostalgic feel, which is particularly effective when it shows historic buildings in ways where you couldn’t tell if it was shot yesterday or 60 years ago.
However, for me, while there are moments when Olson reaches the truly poetic and sections that are oddly beautiful, overall it lacks the connections it’s striving for and its tendency towards the soporific doesn’t help. It’s very close to being wonderful, but doesn’t quite make it.
Overall Verdict: Full of interesting ideas and wonderful footage, but sadly Jenni Olson’s stream of consciousness doesn’t reach the depths or connections it strives for, leaving something that is periodically fascinating but more often a tiny bit tedious.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac