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What Keeps You Alive
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by Jay Seaver

"Just a quality thing about people trying to kill each other in the woods."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I haven't perused the listings for the local LGBTQ festival as closely as I have others in recent years, but I don't recall many entries that seemed as unrepentantly pulpy as "What Keeps You Alive". It doesn't exactly have main characters who just happen to be gay, but it's also not a niche film, or an introduction, or really outside of the mainstream in any way. It's just a darn good thriller that shows that everyone should watch their backs when they go out to the pretty country with the spotty cell phone reception.

That's where Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and wife Julie (Brittany Allen) are headed, to a really beautiful lake house that has been in Jackie's family for years. It's not entirely idyllic - the boathouse seems to have collapsed over the winter, for a start - but Julie is impressed, looking forward to a nice, relaxing weekend. She's excited to meet Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), a close friend from Jackie's childhood, and her husband Daniel (Joey Klein), although it's a little odd that Sarah called Jackie "Megan".

Writer/director Colin Minihan lets that stew for a while, letting the audience file it back in their heads as something where they are expecting another bit of related information so that when the two connect, there's that thrilling "oh, shit!" moment before things go to hell. Instead, he jumps straight to the violence, kicking things into high gear early and not leaving a whole lot to be explained. Details will be filled in, sure, but for now, it's about running, hiding, recovering from what may be the year's second-nastiest fall after the one in Revenge, and trying to out-think an exceptionally crafty opponent. It's not a completely streamlined thriller, but it doesn't waste time on building sympathy for its villain or trying to build a metaphor. It is what it is, and it's good enough at being that to not feel like it's just going through the motions.

The cast is particularly invested in delivering exactly what this movie needs. Brittany Allen ingratiates Julie with the audience quickly but without a lot of noise, always finding the expression that lets the audience believe in her full, whether it's a happy sense of being overwhelmed by the lake's beauty, the worry that's directed just as much inward as outward when she doesn't know what's up with Jackie, the wear of hitting her body's limits, or just being out of her mind in anger. Julie gets put through the wringer and the audience is with her every step of the way, even during the bad decisions.

Martha MacIsaac and Joey Klein are good as Sarah and Daniel - they are good, early on, at not sharing something in a way that seems both specific rather than generically mysterious but is still useful misdirection - but there's no question that Hannah Emily Anderson is who everyone will remember from this movie. She starts out doing a lot of what Allen does, but Jackie isn't going to slowly find confidence out of desperation, but to reveal it early, and Anderson dives into the role like she's never going to have a chance to play another like it again. She attacks the physical parts of the role with an enjoyable efficiency, drops darkly funny observations in perfectly dry fashion, and lets out a sort of glee when she finally gets the upper hand. Minihan never has her exactly subverting expectations, but she's never playing to them, either.

He's clearly having fun as well, using his mostly-female cast to build action scenes that are less based on raw power than sheer ruthlessness, and while he doesn't really dwell on it, starting from Julie and Jackie being a couple makes it feel like there are more permutations possible with a small cast than there might be otherwise, where someone being gay or bi might be a bigger hit on a filmmaker's twist budget. He's good at juxtaposing pretty and rustic with bloody and cruel, and occasionally has his villain glance at the fourth wall with purpose without actually breaking it. The last act does have a bit of a tendency to keep going when just clearing out makes a lot more sense, and though he stretches the script to cover that, he does stretch it a bit thin by the end.

"What Keeps You Alive" is a fine "psycho in the woods" chase for everyone, and while serious people don't often talk about this sort of genre movie when discussing representation, I've got to imagine that it's kind of nice to go to one of these things and see yourself as hero and/or villain without it being about that part of your identity and how others react to it. Maybe not quite unprecedented, but an impressively different flavor nonetheless.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32132&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/30/18 13:05:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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