Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Final Girls

So, after noting them in Next Week In Tickets for a long time, being interested in it just because programmer Anna Feder always seemed genuinely enthusiastic about what she was doing when working with the Boston Underground Film Festival, and liking both free movies and the space they occupy, I finally made my first trip out to the Bright Lights series for The Final Girls.

Since it's an Emerson College presentation, there's a very real possibility that I was twice the meidan age of the folks attending. That's sobering.

Todd Strauss-Schulson at Bright Lights

Give this to director Todd Strauss-Schulson - he was down for a good Q&A, sticking around for about an hour or so, seeming genuinely enthusiastic that the audience at his alma mater showed up for and dug his movie, and speaking pretty frankly about being disappointed by how the sales and distribution end worked: A prime spot at SXSW didn't really translate into any offers from places that would do more than Stage 6 (Sony's VOD-focused label) would despite the fact that this is a movie that works pretty well with an audience.

It was kind of interesting to hear him talk about how they were kind of hands-on, in that he seemed to resent it as is natural and probably healthy but most of what came out of it was pretty good ideas: They insisted what was a fairly gory screenplay become a PG-13 movie, but audiences getting into the kills might have undercut what the movie was going for; there were reshoots after a test screening indicated that the obligatory romance wasn't enough for the ending to rest on, and it really was obligatory; and so on. I kind of wonder where the line is between filmmakers feeling it was helpful and not.

Anyway, they talked about how it was apparently developing a cult following, noting that there was a midnight screening lined up at the Cooldige in April and that there's been a good response online, including fanfic and mashups. I kind of wonder if that will be used as a measuring stick eventually.

It's not bad, and I'm glad I got to see it with a crowd.

(Pointless aside: Co-star Alexander Ludwig apparently also appeared in a movie named "Final Girl" last year. That's not confusing at all!)

The Final Girls

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2016 in the Bright Screening Room (Bright Lights, digital)

You can tell from the title that this movie is going to be playing on horror movie tropes - the "final girl" being the last survivor of a massacre who takes down the killer - but that's often the last interesting thing in play with it. On the other hand, it's got a very nice cast and a hook that invites the audience to actually care from the start rather than just snickering at how silly the whole thing is.

The setup introduces the audience to Max Cartwright (Taissa Farmiga), a high-school senior whose actress mother Amanda (Malin Akerman) died in a car accident three years ago; her best friend Gertie (Allia Shawkat); Gertie's step-brother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch); Chris (Alexander Ludwig), the tutor Max has a crush on; and Vicki (Nina Dobrev), Chris's envious ex. The cinema where Duncan works is screening one of Amanda's old movies, Camp Bloodbath, and because of a bunch of jerks who don't know how to act in a movie theater, they wind up trying to escape a fire via the emergency exit behind the screen. Instead, they wind up inside the movie, where Amanda's girl-next-door Nancy is just one of several characters slated to be dismembered.

They quickly figure that the only way out of the movie is to be among the survivors at the end, but this part of the story really makes no sense whatsoever, from the theory being formulated to how it plays out to how inconsistent and hole-filled it is in between. The whole "sex equals death in horror movies" trope feels like warmed-over Scream, good for some broad comedy as campers Kurt (Adam DeVine) and Tina (Angela Trimbur) bounce about in a way that is basically asking for it given that set-up but not exactly fresh material satirically. When this material is actually driving decision-making, it can get sort of frustrating, as director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers M.A. Fortin & Joshua John Miller seem to have the characters adopt "movie logic" that can't quite be pinned down a bit too readily, struggling with how it conflicts with actual logic.

It's mostly forgivable, though, because it gets the audience to the right place, with Max and Nancy at the center of the movie and the way the hole at the middle of Max's life is hurting her and holding her back. Tessa Farmiga is especially good, always showing how Max is smart and strong but also carrying more than she sould at that age without having to articulate it. Malin Akerman shines as well, quickly establishing Amanda Cartwright as imperfect but justifiably adored by her daughter in the beginning and doing a fine job of pushing Nancy from a parody of a horror-movie stereotype to someone more complete, selling the idea that even the roles that an actress doesn't think much of have some part of her in them.

The rest of the cast does good work, too - Alia Shawkat and Nina Dobrev play types that are as familiar to modern slasher fans as the others, but they naturally have more personality, and are funny to boot. Alexander Ludwig is sneakily funny and charming as Chris - he seems like a sort of blandly handsome and nice guy, but there's an understated earnest dorkiness and oddity to him that's often just as amusing as how Thomas Middleditch puts that sort of thing front and center. The Camp Bloodbath characters are a lot of fun as well - Adam DeVine and Angela Trimbur dive into what they're given with abandon, but it's also pretty easy to develop a soft spot for Tory N. Thompson's laid-back take on a guy who was created to have one personality trait but grows nicely when given the chance.

They work with Strauss-Schulson to make sure the movie always hits the right tone at the right moment, and he actually proves pretty nimble - the fire in the theater starts out as Rube Goldberg silliness but gains some actual tension, as does the central "booby trap" set piece. The film is full of big, goofy jokes that earn their laughs without undercutting empathy for the characters, and the action is fairly well-executed as well.

There's a fair amount of places where "The Final Girls" could have been better, although it hits its main target and strings a more good moments together than most other films like it. If nothing else, it's got more ambitions than most horror spoofs of its ilk, and does a fair job of achieving them.

No comments: