BORREGO. Saban Films, 2022. Lucy Hale, Leynar Gomez, Jorge E. Jimenez, Nicholas Gonzalez, Olivia Trujillo. Written & directed by Jesse Harris. Currently streaming on Netflix.

   The opening is exceedingly promising. Working alone in the empty desert under the hot California sun, botanist Elly (Lucy Hale) is both focused and distracted. While she is squarely devoted to her botanical survey, she’s also lost in her own thoughts and mourning the loss of her younger sister. But the desert has its own plans for her.

   Unbeknownst to her, she’s not the only one who is toiling in semi-solitude in the great emptiness of eastern San Diego County. Also out there is Guillermo (Jorge E. Jimenez), an enforcer for an unnamed Mexican drug cartel and father-and-daughter duo, local sheriff Jose (Nicholas Gonzalez) and Alex (Olivia Trujillo).

   The inciting event that interrupts Elly’s solitude is the type of thing that happens mostly in the movies: a plane crash. While out in the desert examining local flora, she bears witness to a small plane going down in the desert. The pilot – the only one on board – survives. But he’s not an innocent traveler. Far from it. Rather, he is also working for the drug cartel and is ferrying highly dangerous fentanyl across the California-Mexico border.

   The movie thus changes course and the narrative thrust comes into focus. Tomas (Leynar Gomez), the pilot, takes Elly hostage and demands she take him and the remaining pills to the Salton Sea in Imperial County. What follows is a survival thriller that runs out of steam well before the movie ends. While Elly and Tomas bond over their shared life struggles and tragedies, Guillermo seeks to retrieve the drugs and to kill all who get in his way. And the sheriff is trying to stop any further bloodshed. It’s all rather predictable and formulaic and doesn’t really offer the viewer anything refreshingly new.

   The best parts of the movie are those that utilize the stunningly empty landscapes of the California desert. The cinematography, especially in the first thirty minutes or so, is quite good and the movie is effective in transporting the viewer to a land that is equally enchanting as it is dangerous. Like Budd Boetticher’s minimalist westerns with Randolph Scott, the landscape is as much as character as any of those portrayed by the actors.

   But unlike Boetticher’s films, the characters in Borrego aren’t complex, multilayered, or particularly compelling. This new release, at its best, is a decent adventure yarn. At its worst, it’s a socially conscious message film that doesn’t seem to have anything more compelling to say other than drugs are bad and that they will not only ruin your life, but the lives of those you love.