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by Jay Seaver

"High-quality and high-pollen-count."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: "Flora" is a thriller that, like may first films, is built to work around pitfalls and get the absolute most that the filmmakers can out of what they have available, to the point where it sometimes seems that the characters and filmmakers are improvising in the same way. While that's not the most exciting way to present a movie, it can certainly make for one that catches the eye when reading a genre festival's catalog or a VOD menu, and in this case the results are not bad at all.

Some of what makes it eye-catching is the 1929 setting, with four botany students - Ora Blackwood (Teresa Marie Doran), Matsudaira Basho (Dan Lin), Rudyard Corey (Miles G. Jackson), and Charles Horne (William Aaron) - are headed into an unmapped part of the woods to assist a professor on a survey, joined by nurse Avis Tasker (Sari Mercer) and Rudy's brother Haviland (Caleb Noel). When the professor doesn't meet them as planned, they voyage up the river and to the camp as planned, only to find it abandoned, and the provisions that were supposed to last them a month gone. They start to make plans to make do, but after a day or so they can't help but notice there are no animal and insect noises.

The jazz-age setting that writer/director Sasha Louis Vukovic chooses is convenient in a lot of ways, and not just in the obvious lack of mobile phones and a setting where a reasonably-equipped expedition can still venture into unknown territory without the vague hand-waving of having supernatural forces mess up compasses and create impossible topology. It's also fun; it makes for period-appropriate music on the soundtrack, costumes which signal exploration, science, and adventure to the audience without it seeming like an affectation. Characters can drop references to being on the Discovery with Shackleton, and when it comes time to explain the scientific nature of the danger they face and what they're doing about it, it makes sense for it to be within the grasp of most of the audience rather than filled with difficult technobabble.

Writer/director Sasha Louis Vukovic drops that cast of characters into a lush green forest that is not just timeless but well-used to boost everything about the film. Seemingly little choices have noteworthy effects - maybe it's a little trickier and more time-consuming to show the party canoeing up a river rather than just walking through the woods, but it makes the viewer's brain register them as being further in than if he or she had just seen them walking for a shot or two, increasing the isolation. It allows him and his cast to twist that setting into a deadly environment with just words or small, believable scenes; the endless green turned from symbolizing life to death. Vukovic has a pretty good eye, framing shots well and making the best use of his locations. He builds tension and danger well enough that relatively small action bits feel genuinely dangerous even though thousands of bigger, impossible stunts have warped audiences' senses of danger. The gruesome make-up budget is low, but deployed effectively enough that audiences remember.

The cast, like Vukovic, is mostly working on their first feature, but they also certainly show potential. As a whole, they tend to strike a nice balance between capturing the cadences and attitudes of the period and coming across as fairly contemporary. Teresa Marie Doran is the one who most immediately gives the impression that she may have a future in this; she's able to make Ora the pivotal person in a scene even when her involvement seems less central, not quite coming out of a shell as the film goes on but being more matter-of-fact and open about her capability while building a lot of small interactions into empathy for other characters that the audience might be less immediately fond of. She doesn't get quite so concrete a showcase as Dan Lin and Sari Mercer, who get a chance to show a little bit of the tension underneath the assimilated "Matt" and the fashionable but underestimated Avis.

There are a few hiccups to "Flora", but it's nevertheless a tremendously promising debut, a far more assured and exciting thriller than many made by people with far more experience under their belts. It's just different enough to stand out, makes the most out of what it has, and has me interested to see what the folks involved will do next.

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originally posted: 02/16/18 05:25:53
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4/14/19 Bob Strauss surprise; excellent 4 stars
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