TIFF 14: ‘Spring’ is a flawed but vibrant romantic-horror film

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Spring
Written by Justin Benson
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead
USA, 2014

With their debut film Resolution, Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson piled together their resources and created a startling genre-breaking horror film that surprised audiences with its meta-textual exploration of urban legends. The film broke down the conventions we most often associate with the horror genre before reconstructing them in a fresh and original way. The film was also set apart by its unique and abrupt dialogue, which teased tastelessness but won you over with its brash charm. Their much anticipated sophomore effort, Spring, was selected as part of the Vanguard section of Toronto Film Festival and similarly aims to deconstruct the horror genre.

Spring can most easily be described as a romantic-horror: a monster movie with a heart set mostly in a small tourist destination in Italy. After the death of his mother, Evan(Lou Taylor Pucci) loses his job and gets himself in a fight that causes him to be pursued by police. With nothing left in California, he hops on the first available flight, which brings him to Italy. This adventure leads him to meeting the beautiful and mysterious Louise (Nadia Hilker).

Spring fits closer into the tradition of contemporary romantic comedies than it does the horror genre. Borrowing heavily from films like the Linklater Before trilogy and low-key mumblecore love stories, the film interrupts the comfort of its discussions with digressions into body horror. This is by no means a traditional romance, and the film posits immediately that no one really ever enters a romantic liaison without wanting something from the other person. We are not selfless and love is not blind, especially in the throes of early lust.

Lust is more complex than we give it credit for. So much of it is left up to senses we are rarely conscious of, and relies on impulses that transcend logical thinking. As much as we want to think otherwise, it’s rarely “just sex”. The undercurrents of sex are rarely just pleasure as emotions and procreation are always twisted into the mix. The monstrosity of both love, sex and procreation are literally embodied by the film’s horror element. To the credit of the filmmakers, though, they don’t take the easy route in the creation of their mythology, nor does monstrosity become too overtly a symbol of a threatening female sexuality. If anything at all, Spring is not a safe film, as it does take some crucial risks in both form and narrative.

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That being said, the film does not hit all its marks. It occasionally wanders down narrative paths that don’t have complete resolutions. These decisions don’t inspire an open-ended sense of dread that some horror films purposefully evoke, but rather suggest a sense of the incomplete. The film adopts a trend in contemporary independent cinema of the non-ending. Instead of completing the narrative circle as presented by Joseph Campbell in his many works on narratives and mythology, we are left without any real closure or change.This leaves the character hanging in a bizarre limbo; we are missing the return to comfort, or an establishment of a new status quo.

Similarly, the film’s visual style leaves something to be desired. The hand-held work is often distracting and does not have any clear narrative or aesthetic reason. The film has some beautiful visual flourishes, and certainly some inspired visual concepts, but it’s difficult not to wish that a better director of photography was behind the film. The most interesting element, though, is the extended use of drones in capturing both primary and secondary action. This technology is only gaining more leverage as drones become more complex and easier to handle. They do suffer in some respects, though, in that the quality of the image is different than the rest of the film and, as they are still a relatively new way of capturing images, they are still jarring. It is nonetheless exciting to see filmmakers take risks with new technologies, and this particular effect does bring an otherworldliness to the visual style.

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Ultimately, the appeal of the film rests quite heavily on the two leads. They are the focus of much of the film’s attention, in particular as the film does go on conversational tangents that break the rhythm of traditional narrative forms. Both Nadia Hilker as Louise and Lou Taylor Pucci as Evan are charming and cocksure: they are worthy opponents in the war of love and lust. Hilker though, emerges as the film’s signature presence. Her unusual accent, penetrating look and natural presence make her a star in the making and it will be exciting to see what kind of projects she undertakes in the future.

While Spring does not necessarily live up to the promise of its premise, it is without a doubt one of the most original monster features in recent years. Benson and Moorehead show themselves to be fearless writers and directors who are unafraid to take risks in both content and form, and the film seems to quiver with the ambition of youth. They are without a doubt filmmakers on the cusp of greatness, and in a few years Spring will no doubt be looked upon as an integral part of their journey. One can only hope their future work maintains the same level of inventiveness and energy.

— Justine Smith

Visit the official website of the Toronto International Film Festival.




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