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Lifechanger
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by Jay Seaver

"Never finds a proper identity."
2 stars

Telling a horror story or thriller from the point of view of the monster is often an intriguing idea, but one that requires a little more care than writer/director Justin McConnell takes with "Lifechanger", although that's not its only issue. The exciting high concepts of its shape-shifting plot and the practical limitations of the production keep running into each other, and it's easy to lose patience by the time it gets to the clever bit.

It starts with a woman (Elitsa Bako) waking up next to a desiccated corpse, though she's got a male voice-over (Bill Oberst Jr.); that's because when "Drew" drains the vitality from somebody, he takes on their physical form, usually healing as he does so, although he still seems to have a wound from where the original Emily tried to defend herself this time around. Changing like this is a matter of survival, but bodies used to last longer, sometimes years, before he used to feel himself about to break down and begin the process again. He's reached the point where he knows which chemicals can change long he has, and has a regular disposal routine; he also has a girl he's fond of, Julia (Lora Burke), and finds a reason to hang around her favorite bar no matter what form he takes (Steve Kasan, Sam James White, Rachel VanDuzer, Jack Foley).

Sometime, around the point where Drew mentions that he lost track of Julia's home address the last time she moved, it clicks into place that, above and beyond the regular murder and path of destruction he cuts through innocent people's lives, he's also a stalker, and that's the moment when the film is most clearly pulled in two directions. It is, after all, an interesting and worthy subject, and a pretty clever way of talking about how a person can hide behind various shifting identities in the Twenty-First Century without the film becoming all shots of computer screens and people typing with overlaid text. It also makes Drew a thoroughly miserable person for the audience to be spending time with, but not necessarily evil or self-deluding in a way that the audience either feels an uncomfortable sympathy or a disgust that can completely override interest in the fantasy situation. It's uncomfortable, but not quite in a way that compels one to keep watching.

If the portrayal of Drew were a little more cohesive, that would help, but the film is often fuzzy on how his whole deal works, like he was originally intended to explicitly take on more of the personality of his victims (hormones or brain structure or something), except that McConnell realized too late that it might undercut the themes to give him anything that could be interpreted as a reset. The half-dozen or so actors who play Drew on-screen over the course of the movie do a fair job capturing a sort of version of someone who thinks he's a cooler, better person than he is, especially without any particularly obvious bits of body language carried over, but that's undercut by Bill Oberst Jr.'s narration, which is fine on its own, but too solemn and mournful to match what the other actors are doing very well, never quite catching a tone that feels like someone lying to themselves.

The film as a whole tends toward being potentially good pieces that don't fit together: There are dead ends with supporting characters are necessarily abandoned but have so little effect on Drew or the story that they wind up feeling like wasted time, bits of the story that hang on him suddenly being dumb despite having previously been pretty capable, and hints at his past and nature that might be interesting but never get to be telling. Lora Burke does decent work with a somewhat underwritten role as Julia, and there's some decently well-done practical bits around Drew's transformation and regeneration, and an ending that could be interesting if the film had a chance to nail down the implied irony.

It makes for a frustrating movie; even as someone with a soft spot for playing with identity this way and likes the themes McConnell is covering, I wanted to bail halfway through. It gets better and turns out to be a stronger film than it sometimes appears to be, but it winds up more a curiosity for folks who like this sort of thing than something which impresses for coming at a topic from an interesting angle.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32434&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/23/20 05:52:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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