BURN YOUR MAPS
As most writers are, I’m an avid reader that adores a good story and while books are my first love, movies are a close second. So when I watch a movie that moves me the way Burn Your Maps did I want to tell the world. For the sake of full disclosure, I read a couple of reviews online that were not nice which left me wondering if I had watched the same movie as those critics, but having taken a turn at screenwriting (six and counting), I’m going go with the theory that the critics in this instance have never written anything of their own other than, well, criticism. So let’s dive in.
Burn Your Maps (2016; released 2019), is an adventure comedy-drama — so stand down all you haters who think that every movie should be on the level of Casablanca —directed by Jordan Roberts, based on a short story by Robyn Joy Leff, and starring Vera Farmiga (Alise), Jacob Tremblay (Wes), Suraj Sharma (Ismail), Ramón Rodríguez (Batbayer), Virginia Madsen (Victoria) and Marton Csokas (Connor).
The story starts with the parents, Alise and Connor (Farmiga and Csokas) in a psychologist’s office; they refer to their psychologist as the barefoot lesbian since she never puts shoes on. They are there because of the huge transformational changes rumbling through their family due to the loss of their youngest child, the kind of trauma that leaves emotional scars which can last lifetimes.
Their son, 8-year old Wes, channels his grief in a strange, yet compelling way: he believes he was born in the wrong place and that his real life is as a Mongolia goat herder. At first, it’s cute, watching Wes dress up like a Mongol goat herder for Heritage Day at school, but when Wes’s behavior escalates to the abnormal, the already tense emotional tenor of the house fractures even more distinctly. This family is barely holding it together.
Alise teaches English to immigrants and one day, Wes attends class with his mother. He meets Ismail, an Indian immigrant who feels the American dream has failed him (an idea that has become more predominant in today’s immigration-unfriendly America), something he expresses when he reads his letters to home assignment to the class. A series of interactions between Wes and Ismail, a wanna-be filmmaker, occur in the days that follow which leads Ismail to start a crowdfunding page for Wes so he can travel to Mongolia and realize his dream of being a goat herder while Ismail tags along to film the whole thing.
Did I mention that Wes was 8?
Wes’s dad, Connor, a bit of a micro-manager, freaks out when he discovers this and takes it out on Alise, but Alise sees something else in her son’s desire and, following her intuition, sets out for Mongolia with Wes and Ismail in tow.
Mongolia’s ruggedly beautiful landscape is its own character, landlocked as it is between Russia to the north and China to the south. Populated for the last 40,000 years, Mongolia is home to horse-riding nomads and goat herders who roamed the open plains since at least 3,500 BC. Mongolians nomadic history affords them a quiet strength — the country experiences short summers and long, cold winters with temperatures as low as -13 degrees Fahrenheit — reinforced by their lifestyle and housing choices. While some portion of the population has found apartment dwelling a good fit, most Mongolians prefer yurts (known as a ger in Mongolian) to brick and mortar, a good fit for the arid climate, and something that allows Mongolians to retain aspects of their original nomadic identity even in the 21st century.
None of that was explained in the film, a shame, I think because the best films educate as well as entertain us. In addition, I do wish the filmmakers would have delved more deeply into the realm of reincarnation, something the Mongolians as a predominantly Buddhist country believe in, as do many people in India, home to four of the world’s major religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. Other than a short discussion between Ismail and Wes about reincarnation, there was nothing much more said until the end, a missed opportunity and one that would have also served as a way to explain why Wes felt such an affinity with goat herding and could ride a horse with skill and abandon even though he had never sat on a horse before.
Even these missteps didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for this rare gem of a film. There is a scene where Wes is riding a horse and one of the locals calls him a name in Mongolian — something I didn’t catch — but the meaning was “something that knows what it wants.” Unlike so many of us, Wes knew exactly what he was looking for, in his case, some validation of the feeling that this was a life he had lived before, and that spirits, especially those of babies that are taken from us too young, live on, too. That Alise had the strength of her own spirit to let him follow his heart was the truly incredible part of the story. How many parents would let an 8-year old lead, but in doing so, their fractured family found a way to be whole again.
It is unusual that a single experience could change your life so dramatically that you become something much different than you were before more so because we as a species are usually too afraid to allow ourselves the initial experience. Yet, everything we encounter changes us on some level so when the experience is profound the change must be, too, right?
But really, it’s the small steady changes we make from day-to-day that have the greatest effect on us overall. Perhaps today you’ll take a walk and have a talk with a loved one instead of burying yourself in social media or write a few things down that you’d like to see happen over the next year or so, or make a plan for your life’s work for the next decade. Perhaps today you’ll make a date with yourself to figure out what exactly it is that you want — for breakfast, your life, or the next 24 hours — and to figure out a way to get it.
We all owe it to ourselves and our lives to cut through the relentless noise and hurry of our days and figure out what it is we came here to do. Burn Your Maps reminds us that the only real guidance system we need is our intuition and our ability to say yes.