Wednesday, 9 August 2017


Emily Jackson and Benjamin Frankenberg

So the story goes like this ... She guzzles booze, hankers for hallucinogenics, and gets into a Lolita phase of one-nighters. These "good times" only end when she pops enough sleeping pills to take her to within a step of death's door. Eighteen-year-old Max McLean (Emily Jackson) hasn't been able to live in her skin since the suicide of boyfriend Adam (Benjamin Frankenberg). Her status-conscious folks brag about their girl going to Yale, while displaying thinly veiled relief in anticipation of the troubled one being out of their hair in the near future. Max decides to set her own schedule for leaving the nest, sneaking out in the middle of night, in spite of the efforts of her brother Gabriel (Chris Bellant), the only family member in genuine anguish over her state when he isn't being her harshest critic. A train trip with a destination chosen at random finds her in a township with a library ... not that she lacks for reading material; her suitcase is stuffed with the same books Adam used to mull over, penned by famous writers who had taken their own lives. Enter a chap named Ish (Craig McDonald-Kelly), a quirky local snapping Polaroid pictures of Max that annoy her to no end. Her unwanted follower does provide one bit of practical help, that being a place to crash - Max finds herself slumming on a library couch, having hid with Ish till closing hours. From there a relationship develops as the couple frolics through the woods, bantering philosophical musings when Ish isn't urging Max to climb trees as a sort of inner strengthening exercise. Alas, it gradually comes out that the lad has his own issues to deal with: a long-gone mom and an alcoholic father that has made Ish a pariah in the community. Throughout all of this Max continues to experience visions of Adam, with the tête-à-têtes the tuxedo clad spirit initiates not exactly being of the supportive kind.

Living with the Dead presents itself as a kind of existentialist sandwich; large parts of the meaty middle section find the two protagonists in a realm of their own in the woods where they can reflect, disconnecting with the outside world while pondering its metaphysical and spiritual makeup, as well as their own. The surrounding passages are the white bread territory with the characters involved with less abstract situations. The philosophical jargon that seems apropos in the out-in-nature settings comes across as cringe-worthy elsewhere, particularly when recited by Jackson, as if she was reading off a teleprompter supplying lines from This doesn't help the fact that the actress has some struggles in the early part of the film, coming across as too blank to suggest the torment the character is suppose to be going through. Getting past the twenty-minute mark one starts to yawn and wonders if there is going to be a payoff.

Fortunately, things improve as the narrative unfolds, particularity after the introduction of Ish. A theater prof I knew always said acting is really reacting; that holds true here as Jackson's performance improves substantially at the point McDonald-Kelly comes on the scene. Playing off her engaging co-star helps Jackson to peel off the layers surrounding Max while one becomes increasingly interested in the mysteries surrounding the backstory of Ish.

As noted, Jackson delivers a performance that improves with screen time and McDonald-Kelly is spot-on as the straw that stirs the drink of the storyline.  As naked as these two performances end up as the real emotional core of the film belongs to a short but memorable turn by Thomas Poarch as Ish's alcoholic dad. Rather than portraying the character as a stereotypical drunken lout, Poarch evokes sympathy and heartbreak as he muses on a life he found to be overwhelming. Unexpected and beautifully done.

The film is Christine Vartoughian's first foray into feature territory and for the most part it marks an impressive debut. I would have liked to have seen less cutting on dialogue and for the words spoken to sound more like they were coming from real human beings, but these unfortunate failings are not fatal. One may still be left at the end with a little head scratching as to why Adam did what he did but the film struck me as being more about effect rather than cause anyway. Vartoughian shows genuine promise and it should be interesting to see what follows in her career. The overall production values are impressive for a film at this budget category.

A timely tale told in a sensitive manner, Living with the Dead is, overall, worth the time spent to regard it.

Hugs go to this film because of ...

- generally good acting.

- a promising feature directorial debut.

- earnest exploration of a timely topic.

(Full disclosure: Producer Rebekah Nelson requested a review and provided a screener link to the film.)

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