“LIFE AFTER BETH” (Sundance Movie Review)
Somewhere, perhaps even at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, there is a film that’s like LIFE AFTER BETH, but with no zombies. That version is likely anyone’s idea of a “Sundance” movie; essentially, an indie about a devastating break-up. When you consider that alternative, it makes the unique, intimate LIFE AFTER BETH even better and its slot in the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition truly satisfying. With horror— at least to this writer and I imagine many readers—is the best way to tell this type of story. Instead of a drab stab at realism, we’re treated to the sometimes sweet, oftentimes icky, intensely funny and cutting chronicle of getting on.
LIFE AFTER BETH is about the second chance we want, but never, ever need. Zach (Dane DeHaan) is morose and in mourning after the unexpected death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza). He is traipsing around in all black and attempting to bond with Beth’s parents to keep a connection alive. He dons her scarf. “It’s summer,” his mother tells him. Unfortunately, her folks grow cold and distant with little explanation. Already in distress, Zach attempts to confront them in person, instead finding a returned Beth and a mess of confusion.
Considering the young nature of Zach and Beth’s characters, it’s remarkably natural to tie the behavior following a break-up to the stakes of life and death, and there’s little hiding director Jeff Baena’s film is about just that. Zach reveals that just before Beth’s demise, she was looking at other options. Her resurrected self however has no recollection, instead seemingly resetting and fixating on Zach and their unhinged hormones (as well as attics, mud and smooth jazz, weirdly). What follows is, much like any ill-fated second go at a relationship, an accelerated, torrid affair, handily visualized as Beth decomposes and frays before everyone.
What’s remarkable, aside from the genuine wit on display and clever nature of Baena’s script, is the way he crafts each step of confused emotion involved with rekindling a failed relationship. The ride is earnest and heartfelt midst its truly dark, often violent humor. One section, as Zach ignores the strange circumstances and stranger bodily issues of Beth’s return, plays as the introduction of our new favorite cinematic goth couple. Zach, adorned in black, treats his technically deceased girlfriend in a 50s-esque peter pan-collared dress to hikes and serenades on the beach. They stare and share exchanges lovingly, with true chemistry on the parts of Plaza and DeHaan. Of course, the impossible nature of them being together rises with fury, as Beth lashes out with little understanding why, becoming aggressive and frightening and increasingly dead-er in the process.
At the Sundance post-film Q&A, Baena revealed that Beth and the film’s other zombies’ obsession with attics and bringing mud in the house is a matter of their limited brain function, doing things in opposite form. As you’re watching however, and as increasing numbers of corpses hit the streets, the attic motif becomes a parallel for the loaded return of things long forgotten. At first, the zombies are jovial, but quickly turn agitated and feral at the confusion of their existence and being a nuisance in the lives of those still living. The wound caused by Zach and Beth’s death/break-up is still so fresh it’s all doubly hurtful for them and the audience, as well.
That’s not to say LIFE AFTER BETH is dour, simply powerful. But surrounded by an incredible ensemble including John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines and Matthew Gray Gubler, the film’s penchant for go-for-broke, out-there humor and hilarious observation of suburban family life is perfect tonal balance. It’s all support for Plaza however, who is absolutely stunning in the role of a self-aware zombie. The story may be about Zach’s letting go, but there’s little denying this is Plaza, and Beth’s film.