As a fan of bloody, often phantasmagoric genre cinema, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t watch many movies like “Mags and Julie Go on a Road Trip” anymore.
And, yet, I’ll also be the first to admit that triple-threat artist Ryann Liebl, who wrote, directed and stars in her first feature-length movie, made a perfect slice of entertainment for women, and men, struggling to endure nine months into a global pandemic.
Liebl, a Wisconsin native who left the Midwest for Los Angeles, wanted to make a funny movie about friendship that also served as a love letter to the panoramic scenery of her home state.
“It’s actually a really cinematic environment, and I think that came across in the movie. Like, it just showcases it,” she told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay by phone recently from her temporary home outside St. Petersburg. “Wisconsin is full of a bunch of characters. The thing about Wisconsin, people don’t apologize for who they are. They’re pretty much themselves. That’s how I grew up. Those are the kind of people I grew up around, and I admire them a ton. So I wanted to highlight them in the movie, these funny, quirky people.”
Liebl has been living in Tampa Bay for about five months shooting her next feature, the based-on-a-true-story “Sunshine Detour,” and she said she’s enjoyed the experience so much that she may open a permanent production office here.
“I kind of go where I’m doing projects. We shall see where the next place will be, but for now, I’m in Florida and I’m enjoying it,” she said. “I kind of like shooting where things occurred, and I met the film commissioner here, Tony Armer, who does Sunscreen Film Festival. He was very helpful in saying, ‘Listen, if you shoot a movie here, this is what we can offer you, this is how we can help you,’ so it seemed like the right thing to do.”
For “Mags and Julie…,” Liebl took people she had met, and universal experiences that many women encounter, and created an authentic and warm story about Mags (Liebl), whose entire life is spent kowtowing to an overbearing male boss, who inherits property in Rhinelander and is prompted to go on an adventure by her best friend, Julie (Elisabeth Donaldson).
The trip is not without its unexpected mishaps, including a blown tire and an uncooperative roadside motel door, and a healthy dose of cathartic emotional upheaval as the two women work to repair a relationship that has frayed due to Mags’ unrealistic career expectations.
“As a writer, I’m always pulling from my experiences in life, and also too, as a comedic writer, I like to pull from things that I find are funny, and I kind of make mental notes on things I observe and I go through, but I’ve always loved characters and stories where normal people get into horrible situations,” Liebl said. “I’ve always thought that was really funny.”
Unlike recent female-centric comedies that rely on physical humor in a way that almost denigrates the lead actors, “Mags and Julie Go On a Road Trip” is much more focused on the power of self-realization and self-worth.
If I had to compare it to a classic, I’d say it’s a variation on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” with Liebl as Steve Martin and Donaldson as John Candy.
“I grew up watching that movie. We actually own that movie. I can’t even tell you how many times I watched it,” Liebl said, pleased by the comparison. “And I love what John Hughes does. He was really amazing. He was another Midwesterner who made very grounded, funny, uplifting comedy.”
And humor, according to Liebl, is what people need most right now during a period of overwhelming uncertainty. She pointed to her grandparents as an example.
“They lived through the Depression and World War II, right, so what they thought was entertaining, the people they watched, were people like George Burns and Bob Hope. They grew up in this world where there was a lot of horror, and the way people dealt with it was with humor,” she said.
“And they would make fun of themselves, and they would make fun of other people, and they just found the humor and they brought it out and it was the way to sort of escape bad things that were going on in the world, or things that people felt they couldn’t get their head around.”
Much like her film, Liebl’s worldview is both genuine and refreshing.
“I think we all need to be not taking ourselves so seriously. I certainly don’t,” she said, “and you’ve seen the movie. I look like crap throughout the whole film, and that’s again what I find so funny, when actors have that ability to just completely get rid of their vanity and just get down to their humanity.”
“Mags and Julie Go on a Road Trip” is now available to rent or buy on most major streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime and iTunes.
John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.
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