Desert Winds (1994): Michael Nickles’ Feature Directing Debut,

Palm Springs Film Fest 1994–Desert Winds, Michael Nickles’ feature directorial debut, is an enigmatic psychodrama about two lonely individuals who establish a bond through mystical communication across the desert winds.

Though decently acted, commercial prospects appear slight for this moody, rather plotless piece, which might hold some interest for regional film festivals.

The prologue introduces Jackie (Jessica Hamilton), a 13-year-old girl, who lives in a New Mexico desert town and works at a dry cleaner. One day, riding her bicycle to deliver the services, she stops atop a high plateau and begins to call into the wind, hoping for an echo. Surprisingly, she get a mysterious response from Eugene (Michael Nickles), a youngster living miles away in Arizona. The two begin to communicate through a tunnel of wind across the vast desert. But the initial contact is fleeting, as Eugene is on his way to start a new life in Philadelphia.

Seven years later, the disenchanted man returns to his small town and a new, more meaningful rapport with Jackie (Heather Graham), who’s now a young woman, evolves.

Picture’s initial premise is promising, but screenwriter Nickles doesn’t develop an intriguing narrative that will involve the viewers in the strange relationship of his two misfits. Most of the film consists of lengthy monologues of the duo, each sitting in front of a bonfire, struggling to overcome their demons and fears.

Some flashbacks from Eugene’s past, which show him to be an alienated individual seeking impersonal sex in sleazy bars, enliven the dreary proceedings, but overall pic lacks much drama–and emotional payoff.

Nickles’ concerns are existential, aiming to say something about the need to communicate, the importance of having hope and faith in oneself–and the unpredictability of fateful encounters. But pic’s issues are delivered in rather dull speeches, in which the characters disclose their personal anxieties. The remorseful Eugene has to come to terms with his guilty conscience for neglecting his father, whose death prompts a crisis, and Jackie needs stronger courage to leave her suffocating surroundings.

First-time director Nickles has problems with finding the right rhythm for his movie, but he shows some talent for creating mood and atmosphere. As the central duo, bound together by fate, the acting of Nickles and Graham is satisfying, but they are handicapped by the text’s monotony and restrictive physical setting.

Denis Maloney’s impressive long shots of Southwest vistas and James McVay’s evocative score help considerably in establishing the tale’s proper ambience.

A Desert Winds Production. Produced by Scott Stephens. Executive producer, Kevin Morris. Supervising producer, Christine Sacani. Directed, written by Michael Nickles. Camera (color), Denis Maloney; editor, Ellen Goldwasser; music, James McVay; additional music by The Cowboy Junkies and The BoDeans; sound, Al Samuels.

Running time: 95 min.

Jackie………….Heather Graham
Eugene…………Michael Nickles
Young Jackie…..Jessica Hamilton
Jackie’s mother…Grace Zabriskie
Eugene’s father…….Jack Kehler