Thursday, October 29, 2015

Shocktober Review: Spring

 When the reviews included phrases like "Linklater's Before Sunrise by way of H.P. Lovecraft," Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's Spring had my attention. It's the sort of combination that doesn't seem like it should work, and for all intents and purposes really shouldn't, but Spring finds a happy medium between those two disparate elements, along with strong undercurrents of early Cronenberg-ian "body horror". It doesn't always gel, and things get just a bit dicey towards the end, when some debatable moments of black comedy enter the narrative, but overall I was quite impressed with the end result.

 Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) just lost his mother, and after the funeral he's drinking with a friend when some guy and his girlfriend decide they want to start something. Evan snaps and gets into a fight, the kind that brings both the guy and the police to his doorstep in the next few hours. Taking a friend up on an offer to leave the country for cheap, Evan takes his passport, a backpack, and heads to Europe while things cool down. He doesn't speak any other languages, only has the money from his inheritance to his name, and knows nobody, but a chance encounter with two British tourists in a hostel takes him to a small coastal town in Italy. Within hours of being there, he's propositioned by Louise (Nadia Hilker), a beautiful student / local, but Evan is a bit more traditional. Instead of hooking up with her, he tells her they can meet somewhere later, but Louise ignores him and leaves. It's a very small town, so their paths cross again, and they strike up conversation. Before long, he's smitten by the worldly young woman, but she has a secret, one that may or may not be linked to mysterious animal - and eventually, tourist - disappearances...

 In a number of ways, Spring is similar in structure to Linklater's Before films: there is quite a bit of walking and talking about life, love, and your place in the world, and there's an obvious parallel about young love (kind of). What I found interesting was that while it's reminiscent of Before Sunrise, both Evan and Louise as characters are more similar to where Jesse and Celine are in Before Sunset. From the outset, we're dealing with damaged characters, who are nursing their own, deeply private, wounds from life, and are accordingly hesitant to share them with each other. It's not until late into the film that Evan actually tells Louise why he's in Italy - she assumes he's just some visitor looking to leave when the holiday season ends - and that's after we have a better idea what's affecting her. I'm being deliberately vague about Louise's condition (and her history) in part because part of what elevates Spring is that you don't know what's going on for much of the film. Besides, I think evoking Lovecraft and Cronenberg should give you some idea what could be happening.

 Spring deviates sharply from the Before trilogy by stretching Evan's courtship of Louise over several weeks, and while it focuses mostly on the two characters, that does mean he has to find somewhere to stay. I'm a bit torn about how helpful Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti) is to the overall narrative of Spring - the elderly widower who takes Evan on as a worker on his farm does help the younger protagonist grow and develop, and it provides a necessary bump late in the film to get him on the road with Louise, but at times Angelo's presence can feel like a distraction from the main storyline. The decision to include this third character helps expand the world of the film, but does take away the laser-like focus Linklater used to such great effect in Before Sunrise. If you're willing to stick it out with Spring, you'll understand why Hilker portrays Louise as distant and brooding as she becomes after she and Evan have sex, but it's an abrupt shift midway through the film. I will say that her demeanor is softened a bit by the mystery of how horror elements figure into the film.

 Then again, if you accept in earnest that two deeply damaged characters are coming together, albeit with great hesitation, the back and forth of their relationship is understandable. Evan is a bit too earnest in his repeated attempts to get Louise to open up, but she has very good reasons. Once it becomes clear why (again, no direct SPOILERS), Spring takes a turn, which leads to an ending some feel was underwhelming, although I found it quite appropriate considering the intimate nature of the story Benson and Moorhead are telling. What I found odd was a sudden insertion of black comedy into the proceedings, particularly when Evan and Louise stop in a church for her to take the last of her "medicine". I will admit that I laughed, but in retrospect, the reaction of objective characters observing Evan and Louise felt a bit out of place. It's a good joke, but I don't know if it's one that needed to be in Spring.

 At any rate, Spring comes highly recommended, minor quibbles aside. The body horror element can be quite horrifying indeed, and the sustained mystery of what Louise is (or is becoming) has an intriguing reveal. The subsequent conversations between our two protagonists poses some interesting questions about the nature of being, love, mortality, and identity, most of which play out in intriguing ways. Pucci and (particularly) Hilker are riveting, and the Italian coastline provides some fantastic eye candy. The effects are used sparingly early in the film, but their increased presence - particularly when Evan arrives during a very bad night at Louise's apartment - never disrupts the naturalistic aesthetic of Spring. If you like your horror with a little romance, or vice versa, there's plenty to take away from the film, and for once the combination of "blank meets blank" is accurate without Spring ever feeling derivative. Quite a feat for Benson and Moorhead, who I hadn't realized directed one of the segments in V/H/S Viral. Unfortunately, it's only one I half-liked (the skaters who go to Mexico on the Day of the Dead), but Spring more than makes up for that.

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