That savage forest, dense and difficult, which even in recall renews my ear
so bitter-death is hardly more severe.
- Dante, Inferno
How timely and ironic that director/writer/co-editor (along with Alec Styborski) Dean Kapsalis’ first feature is released as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic makes most of the world move into a state of uneasiness and nervousness like never before. Many are wondering, “When will this end?” “When will my life feel comfortable again?”
At the centre of it all is high school English teacher, Holly. Her family is in turmoil. Husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham ably sets up a number of scenes) is desperately hoping to move on up to regional manager at the supermarket where he works—the family income needs the financial boost that the promotion would assure. Their two sons, Ben (Taen Philipps) and Lee (Liam Seib) are both foul mouthed, lazy and demonstrate scant respect for the one who brought them into the world. Largely estranged sister Claudia (when called on to be crude, rude and a bully, Ashley Bell revels in the bad-girl role—culminating in the “Who ate all of Nanna’s pie humiliation”) is still another challenge.
Playing Holly, Azura Skye delivers a remarkably nuanced performance as this woman of the damned: her body language expressive (at time expressionless), her visage leaves no doubt about the inner turmoil within. No wonder she’s on anti-depressants and sleep meds just to keep going on from one day to the next. The side effects prove to be hallucinatory, or perhaps not. Like all good thrillers, viewers must come to their own conclusions.
The other significant character comes in the good-looking form of Paul (Zach Rand shows maturity beyond his years in this pivotal role). One of Holly’s students (and ever so conveniently an employee at Rob’s grocery store), is also a very talented sketch artist, but his subject matter threatens to expel him or receive a special kind of praise beyond his wildest dreams.
Kapsalis has crafted a narrative that for avid moviegoers (or longtime critics), leaves enough clues along the journey that almost all plot twists can be seen well ahead of time. But that is not the most important thing here: it is the atmosphere that is created that sets this production far above many others in the genre.
The unseen but heard “star” comes from composer Mark Korven’s superb understanding of instrumentation, counterpoint (notably clarinet, bass clarinet reedy “conversation”) adding as much variety in texture and tone to subtly underscore Holly’s changing moods, feelings and decisions. Bookending everything with a long-ago chorale, Agnus Dei is another “out of this world/mind” masterstroke.
Indeed, moral dilemmas do abound—just like in the real world. Following Holly’s journey is highly recommended, knowing that it is all fiction…or is it? JWR