VivariumReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/14/19 01:37:56
SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The festival's second movie featuring the pairing of Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg in as many nights is even stranger than "The Art of Self-Defense" with some of the same satirical ambitions, although that seems more of a gateway to weird things than the point of the exercise here. Weird wins almost every battle with incisive here, and there are definite pleasures in that, although that makes the movie even more not-for-everyone.Here, they play Gemma and Tom, a young couple looking to buy their first home, but the market is crazy, with everything near the city getting snapped up by folks who make more than a grade-school teacher and a landscaper. They eventually let estate agent Martin (Jonathan Aris) show them a house in the "Yonder" development, whose suburban sprawl and uniformity is exactly what they're not looking for, and that's before Martin abandons them and every turn they take trying to leave lands them back in front of #9 until they run out of gas. Boxes containing supplies mysteriously appear, but soon a more sinister one shows up, containing a baby and the message "raise the child and be released".
Director Lorcan Finnegan and his crew do an impressive job of ramping up the strangeness in their movie; the endless rows of identical houses with their colorful-but-muted palette is a familiar jumping-off place, as is the too-generic design of all the supplies and instructions from the corporation or whatever running all of this, but they does a nice job of pushing it a little further, from the perfectly cloud-shaped clouds to the sun that seems to rise and set a little too fast. They do this resolutely and quickly enough that when Senan Jennings shows up as the boy after a time-jump, the audience is ready for what is one of cinema's most flagrantly creepy kids, with a voice that's not right and a deliberate combination of antagonism and a strange childish mockery of childish sincerity. It pushes every single bit of "why do kids do that?" to the limit, and it's hard not to admire to crazy abrasiveness of it.
It works in large part because Poots and Eisenberg are great foils for it. They've got an easy and immediate chemistry and their characters initially attack the situation with humor that goes from sardonic to fatalistic, recognizing the horrible absurdity of the situation without ever becoming too genre-aware. The screenplay by Garret Shanley sows the seeds of their personality early, with Poots's Gemma being a little more take-charge and optimistic while Eisenberg's Tom is a good man but maybe not quite as flexible as she is (it's worth noting that Poots is first-billed and it really is her movie). They've got a good knack for conveying the sort of flippant confidence that the audience would like to think they'd display at first as well as the toll the whole situation takes on them. They have to carry a lot of the film on their backs - it's a very small cast and most of the rest are primarily being weird - but they are quite capable of it.
The film's biggest fault is that while it is in some ways impressively committed to its outre premise, it often comes at the price of making it less human. The pair are told to raise the boy, but we never see them really try, even when he's a baby; the film jumps straight to Tom calling him a weird little mutant and the audience having no reason to disagree, and even Gemma seldom seems to be trying to treat him as a human child, even though she clearly knows how to deal with kids - at least until the movie needs a rift between her and Tom so that it can use them to comment on the emptiness of either going the life one is expected to lead or futilely trying to escape it. Things eventually strange enough for the metaphor to break down, and even for a movie that can have a distinct vein of nihilism running through it, there's a kind of pointlessness to the resolution, like one of those horror-anthology shows where the shocking ending is all too predictable because they always go for the darkest route.There's still a lot to take in here, though, and it could very well contain Imogen Poots's breakout performance (she certainly delivers a heck of a one-two punch between this and "Self-Defense"). It's like a bigger, more ambitious "Outer Limits" episode for good or ill., and works quite well in that framework
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