Producers: Christian Crocker, Rosemary Prodonovich and Christopher Ganze   Director: Philip S. Plowden   Screenplay: Devon Colwell   Cast: Celeste M. Cooper, Sean Patrick Leonard, Michael B. Woods, Tiffany Renee Johnson, Sarah Charipar, Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Mariah Sydnei-Gordon   Distributor: Dark Star Pictures and Un’Corkd Entertainment

Grade: C

A survival story is usually an exercise in inspiration, but Philip S. Plowden’s debut feature is more a feminist coming-of-age/closure tale, wrapped in the trappings of a violent thriller.  And though it boasts a strong lead performance, “Range Runners” proves so ineptly executed otherwise that it’s more depressing than uplifting, or even hopeful.

 The movie’s primary strength is the intensity—both physical and emotional—of Celeste M. Cooper.  She plays Mel, a young woman who as a child (in the person of Mariah Sydnei Gordon) was trained hard by her father Howard (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), an ex-military man with a drill sergeant mentality, with the eventual goal of earning a spot on the Olympic track team.  His obsession with urging her on was so great that it caused a rift with her sister Chloe (Tiffany Renee Johnson), who felt herself neglected, that has still not healed. 

Harold is gone, but Mel continues to run, alone, over long distances.  Psychologically the practice is clearly a symbolic effort to escape her father’s lingering control, but at the same time it reflects his continuing hold on her. 

After some introductory material, Mel embarks on a run that will take her over hundreds of miles of rough forest, all the necessities in her backpack.   Not far into the punishing journey, however, she meets up with two men on the trail.  Jared (Michael B. Woods) is a rodent-like fellow who has injured his foot and begs her for help.  The other is Wayland (Sean Patrick Leonard), a beefy, thuggish type whose friendly attitude is transparently false.  Mel senses trouble and goes on alone, but they follow her to the campsite she sets up for the night and, when she tries to leave in the morning, attack her, stealing her backpack and tying her up.

Though left to die, however, Mel painfully frees herself.  Rather than reversing course, though, she follows them, determined to retrieve her property for reasons to be revealed only in the movie’s final scene.  Catching up to them, she turns the tables, grabbing their backpack, which—of course—contains the drugs they’re carrying—and scattering the power into the air.

While she’s aborted their plans, though, she suffers a serious leg injury, tumbling down a steep cliff in a fight with Waylon.  Limping away, she encounters a sympathetic cop named Parker (Sarah Charipar), who promises to call in reinforcements and drive her to safety.

But the final act is just beginning.  A fairly predictable twist in the narrative brings an extended final confrontation with the men, one that becomes extremely brutal and gory. Though she survives, Mel is hardly triumphant; instead the grueling experience serves as a means of achieving a kind of closure in her love-hate relationship with her demanding father. 

“Range Runners” is essentially one half abuse tale and one half revenge story with a feminist twist.  It holds your attention because of Cooper, who makes Mel a compelling, sympathetic character even when she resorts to fairly gruesome expedients to stay alive.  Unfortunately for the most part the other actors are not remotely in her league, with Leonard and Charipar coming off especially badly, though to be fair they’re stuck with much of the most cliché-ridden dialogue in Devon Colwell’s script, which regularly traffics in purple prose.  Nor is the dark, grubby look of the picture (the cinematography is by Darryl Miller and the production design by Caitlin Maldonado) at all inviting.

Thanks to Cooper’s energy and Plowden’s sporadically effective direction, the movie delivers some visceral excitement, and Michael Thomas James’s editing and Richie Palys’ music try to keep things moving.  But overall it’s an unpleasantly exploitative piece of work.