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Jessica Forever
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by Jay Seaver

"Maybe there's something underneath, but what's on top is rough."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: At some point during "Jessica Forever", I started wondering if maybe this whole thing was a fantasy of some character or other, because that's the only way it starts to make some sort of sense, but absent some more concrete indication from the film itself, it's hard to justify that interpretation, even if it does leave the movie a weird mess of uncertain wish fulfillment badly masquerading as world-building. At best, you can say it's a fable, but it's a dull one, unsatisfying as entertainment.

The film opens with a group of lost boys conducting a sort of raid/rescue; Michael (Sebastian Urzendowsky) is about to be captured or put down by a bunch of drones, but other orphans like himself, led by the beautiful Jessica (Aomi Muyock) save him, and whisk him away to a sort of camp in a large house where they stay together, hunting for food and supplies in disciplined units. When the authorities track them down, they relocate, this time to an island, where Michael meets Camille (Maya Coline) while he and one of the other boys are bathing at the beach, and she seems to like him. The thing about tight-knit groups like Jessica's teenage orphans, though, is that things start to unravel once you add a new element to it.

So, just what is this thing that filmmakers Caroline Poggi & Jonathan Vinel (with script collaboration from Mariette Désert) have made? It feels dystopian for a while, but that falls away as Michael and a few of the other boys start coming into contact with outsiders on the island. There's maybe something to say about how life goes on otherwise even if an oppressive regime is cracking down on vulnerable people like these orphans, but it's not something people talk about. So maybe it's a fantasy, either of Michael's or of these dozen boys collectively, where they're still basically children even if their bodies have passed adolescence, the only girl they have to deal with a crush-worthy babysitter who never scolds and showers them with toys, leading them on adventures of the sort that boys like this find thrilling. It makes as much sense as anything.

And it explains Jessica, costumed and posed to present an iconic sort of image on a poster and impress these man-children but never allowed to define herself as an individual; Poggi & Vinel tell the audience even less about her history than that of the guys, just letting a voice-over talk about how "she tames their violence", assuring the audience that she's some sort of demigoddess without ever showing the nuts and bolts of how she keeps these guys working together. It doesn't give actress Aomi Muyock much to do, but she gets something out of it anyway, making sure Jessica seems authoritative but not overbearing and occasionally letting some exhaustion show on her face.

The guys are in roughly the same spot; Michael's is the point of view that the film takes, but there's deliberately not much to him or any of the group, and the extreme simplification of these characters doesn't give him a lot of room to react to the others, even though he's at least showing some potential for maturity and reintegration. The closest any of them comes to getting much of an interior life and specific history is Augustin Raguenet's Lucas, who is haunted by his sister Andrea (Angeline Woreth), perhaps the best indication that these kids have not just been left behind but cast out because they've done terrible things, making Jessica's mission all the more important. Unfortunately, these boys have a tendency to run together - they're not necessarily all slender, fair teens with large haunted eyes, but every moment the viewer spends trying to figure out which one he is and what he was last up to is a bit of a knock against it.

With a little distance I can talk myself into Vinel & Poggi doing interesting things in "Jessica Forever", especially when approaching it with the benefit of hindsight and the goal of trying to extract a metaphor or intention so that I've got something interesting to write about. That works a lot better when the film itself is captivating to watch for a hundred minutes, rather than dull (despite some skill in working with a tiny budget) and ridiculous enough that one has to make up alternate explanations for what really happening, and you do have to actually sit through it to start taking it apart.

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originally posted: 12/07/19 06:41:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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