Jennifer Phang's Half-Life wonders what it would be like if someone threw an apocalypse and nobody came. The film takes place in a world on the brink of some sort of unavoidable environmental catastrophe. Chaos could break at any moment, but in general everyone just goes about their angst-loaded lives.
Writer/director Phang can't be faulted for her lack of ambition. She intersperses multiple character arcs with fantastical animated sequences, shades of science-fiction and a tapestry of emotional misery. Unfortunately, the film inspires more admiration for its concept than its actual execution. I wanted it to work, I wanted the beautiful, scenic cinematography of fields and the roaring sun to amount to something moving. Instead, I continually found myself drawn away from its emotional center and thoroughly annoyed by the unavoidable emptiness.
The various storylines intersect through young Timothy Wu's (Alexander Agate) family of mopes, made up of older sister Saura (Julia Nickson) and mother Pam (Sanoe Lake). The father ran off a while back, perhaps because everyone was bringing him down with their negative energy. Since Pam recently found herself a boyfriend named Wendell (Ben Redgrave), the kids are ostensibly thinking about their absent father and pondering the existence of this new bozo. Meanwhile, Saura pines for her gay best friend, Scott, who is sleeping with Timothy's grade school teacher.
The film continually toys with science-fiction components, both through frequent apocalyptic news reports in the background and hints that Timothy has telekinetic powers. Phang's most interesting creative choice was to make it all background noise. The sun could become a red giant and envelop Earth, but that's such an overwhelming concept to grasp that the characters rarely even discuss it.
And that lack of discussion is nice, because most of the dialogue is tone-deaf. The actors deliver it in such an off-putting, unnatural manner that I spent much of the film trying to figure out if it was intentional. Their personal issues are so overplayed that they become infuriating. Mom is mad at the world, so she's a mean, whiney bitch to everyone. Scott wants to get a rise out of his parents, so he constantly talks about having gay sex at the dinner table, even though no kid would talk about any kind of sex in that manner.
The characters in general are weakly drawn. The film is particularly confused about Wendell, as both a person and what he represents. I'm not looking for straight black-and-white, good-and-evil characteristics. The problem is that Phang apparently wants to give this character multiple dimensions, yet also turn him into a villain. Unless he did something that no visual elements informed us he did, it's hard to see him in such a harsh light.
Half Life played at Sundance and went on to have a successful festival run, winning awards at the Gen Art Film Festival and two Asian American festivals. I'm happy that Phang has received recognition, as she clearly has talent. But her best work is yet to come. Half-Life shows she has half of her craft developed. I can't wait until she gets a handle on the other.