Indie filmmakers can often feel constrained in the kind of story they want to tell due to their budgetary restrictions, but while some end up avoiding genre fare all together, others enthusiastically embrace the challenge. Think Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998) or Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004), genre films that combine smart writing, compelling performances, and engaging direction, and it’s clear that a low budget doesn’t have to be a barrier to creating thought-provoking thrills. And now another name can be added to that list as writer/director John Rosman‘s debut feature, New Life, finds suspense, emotion, and rich characters alongside a ticking clock for humanity.
Jessica (Hayley Erin) is a young woman on the run who we first meet bloodied, terrified, and desperate to put distance between herself and something in her very recent past. Elsa (Sonya Walger) is the woman in pursuit, an agency cleaner tasked with finding and securing the younger woman by any means necessary. They share more than just a connection as hunter and prey, though, as both women are facing an unavoidable truth about the ways in which our bodies can fail us despite the desperate wishes of our minds. Only one poses a threat beyond her own life, however, and it’s the rest of humanity that’s at risk.
New Life is an intimate character piece set along the fringes of both horror and conspiratorial techno thriller, and that’s a challenging line to walk for even the most experienced filmmaker. Rosman makes it look easy, though, and the key to that success rests in his script’s dedication to delivering two lead characters with some very real depth and emotion. Our interest in both Jessica and Elsa — from our curiosities to our concerns — makes the growing suspense and horror around them all the more powerful. It seems so obvious, but if we care about these women, we’ll in turn care about the story they’re moving us through.
To be fair, it helps that both Erin and Walger give stellar performances that immediately pull viewers into their distinct orbits. Erin earns our empathy for Jessica right out of the gate, and that only grows as more of her story comes to light. It’s impossible not to root for her on this journey even as we learn more about the cost of her freedom. Walger, meanwhile, succeeds every bit as well despite occupying what seems to be a clear cut villain role with Elsa. The difference comes less in the story details than it does in her character as a woman fighting the recent diagnosis and early symptoms of ALS. She’s fighting with her own body but refuses to give up the chase, and like Jessica, she’s a woman who viewers will want to respect and support.
That’s part of New Life‘s beauty — we’re rooting for both “sides” here, the hunted and the hunter, and it leaves viewers in the enviable position of having to weigh more than just their respective superficial labels of protagonist and antagonist. These women are on the move, alone, and their only interactions with others come as Jessica tentatively enjoys the kindness of strangers and a voice of agency support talks in Elsa’s ear. Our understanding of both shifts throughout the film, and it’s an incredibly engrossing journey building to a powerful conclusion.
New Life surprises by by ultimately feeling weightier and bigger than you might think at the start. The intimacy of their respective solitudes suggests nothing more than a personal journey, but Rosman and friends have so much more to offer with a tale exploring boundaries, beliefs, and the line we all have to draw when it comes to both life and death. Emotions run the gamut, but chief among them is fear — fear of the future, fear of the shambling beast before us, and fear of the unknown — and all of it is used to craft heart-thumping thrills that don’t need an enormous budget to succeed.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival