A version of this review also appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 2 of 4 stars.
‘Half-Life’ isn’t the whole cinematic package
Writer-director Jennifer Phang cracks open the big cookbook of arthouse film clichés for her leaden, overstuffed feature film debut “Half-Life.”
An official selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, “Half-Life” dishes up a hodgepodge of indie drama chestnuts: everyday events shown in threatening slow-motion; portentous omens manifested in shaking trees, flickering stoplights and bloody sunsets; unlikable, inauthentic versions of stock characters spouting film-school dialogue.
Phang chocks the movie so full of family melodrama, social commentary and abused-child escapist fantasy that it sometimes simmers but can’t come to a full boil.
And when a pierced young artist rattles about her latest pretentious project and one of the main characters responds “that sounds so typical, er, I mean topical,” you can’t help but wonder if the filmmaker is familiar with that old saying about pots calling kettles black.
“Half-Life” is playing this weekend at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive. Tonight’s screening has been canceled due to winter weather, but the film is scheduled to play at 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, weather permitting. For more information, call 236-3100 or go to www.okcmoa.com/film.
The opening scene makes it known right away that Asian-American siblings Tim (promising youngster Alexander Agate) and Pam (Sanoe Lake) have it tough: In voiceover, Pam moans about feeling the pull of the vacuum of the universe, then Pam plunges off the roof of her family’s Los Angeles house, landing bleeding but still alive next to her younger brother as he innocently plays in the yard.
These are hard times. Newscasters are constantly talking about worsening natural disasters and violent manmade tragedies. And their family has been fractured since their pilot father flew off and never came back.
Their bitter, sharp-tongued mother Saura (Julia Nickson-Soul) finds solace in her much-younger live-in boyfriend Wendell (Ben Redgrave), who wears his true creepiness under a wafer-thin veneer of friendly understanding.
Depressed and directionless, 20-something Pam harbors an unrequited love for her best pal Scott (Leonardo Nam), the gay and rebellious adoptive son of fundamentalist parents (James Eckhouse, Susan Ruttan). But love isn’t so blind that she fails to notice her stepfather-figure paying her inappropriate attention.
Talk about odious characters: Scott’s parents are the latest cinematic examples of crazy Christians, the types who volunteer at hospitals only to read surprisingly dark scriptures to patients and rope their son into baptism practice on weekends. Manipulative Scott merrily uses his sexuality to vex them, gleefully peppering family dinners with explicit references to his affair with an older lover (Lee Marks), who in one of those unlikely movie coincidences just happens to be Tim’s teacher. And Redgrave doesn’t have the acting chops to turn Wendell into the tortured figure Phang apparently has in mind; instead, he just oozes a trail of slime other adults seem unable to detect.
Grade-schooler Tim is at once woefully neglected and exposed to too many adult situations. Always sketching, he frequently escapes the turmoil around him by bringing his drawings of airplanes and race cars to vivid life. When the chaos intensifies, the creative boy also seems to develop paranormal powers that allow him to heal cuts or stop rainstorms.
As the story progresses, Phang cannily incorporates magical realism, leaving it up to the audience to decide whether Tim’s powers are real or mere figments of his fertile imagination. The animated sequences are strikingly rendered, but ultimately fail to follow the film’s internal logic.
Phang shows promise as a budding filmmaker. A few storytelling moments and well-penned conversations reveal an innovative mind at work, and she pulls strong performances from Agate and Lake. Unfortunately, that potential can’t compete with all the tired ingredients spoiling the broth.