And, finally, here we are: my last feature review from the 2019 Boston Underground Film Festival. As you can undoubtedly tell, it’s been a crazy week around here– this year’s festival coverage has been our most extensive and successful by far, and I’ve shattered my own personal record for number of screenings caught. Assassinaut was not the closing selection of the festival– that would be The Unthinkable, which our own Kyle Brunet reviewed the other day— but it was my last film of the fest (I missed the screening, but caught up with a screener), and it turned out to be a lovely note to go out on: a modest, nearly handmade film nonetheless bursting with ideas, with truly impressive visual effects and a surprising amount of heart.
The story takes place at an indeterminate time in the not-too-distant future– advanced space travel is common and aliens are well-known, but people still live in unremarkable rural/post-industrial neighborhoods. Sarah (Shannon Hutchinson), a promising young student with dreams of picking up where her embittered ex-astronaut father left off, is selected to be among the first children deployed to the Presidential Space Station, alongside snotty rich kid Tom (Johnathan Newport), bubbly, brainy Brooke (Yael Haskel), and quiet, aloof Charlie (Jasmina Parent). No sooner do they arrive and meet the charismatic President of Earth (Irene Santiago), however, than tragedy strikes, forcing the kids to fend for themselves on a wooded foreign planet, under the begrudging sometime-supervision of the world-weary Commander (Vito Trigo). Needless to say, they don’t have an easy time of it– but not necessarily in ways you might expect.
As implied above, Assassinaut’s low budget is evident throughout: its alien planet is clearly an earthbound forest, its futuristic gadgets are assembled from scrap and spraypaint, and its young protagonists’ color-coded spacesuits appear to be hand-stitched. But these limitations also showcase the love with which the film was clearly made. There is humor (particularly from the Commander, who makes no bones from the outset about not having time for these goddamn kids), but the whole affair is tackled with a refreshing earnestness. Sarah is on the mission because she believes with her whole heart in the inherent value in space exploration, at one point tearing up at the mere suggestion that they’re only sending kids up there as a publicity stunt. Once they crash land, Sarah takes it as her solemn duty to keep her new friends alive, even as they bicker and generally act like little shits. I’m a sucker for a good true-blue hero, and the decision to make that hero an apparently ordinary teenage girl feels especially resonant at this moment.
Make no mistake, though: this isn’t The Boxcar Children in Space. Once things start going south, they do so in surprising, and legitimately horrifying, ways. Part of this is due to the creature and makeup effects which appear partway through the movie, which well and truly transcend the film’s budget. These effects– all practical– recall the ‘80s work of David Cronenberg (or at the very least peak-period Troma*), and are satisfyingly, and impressively, gooey. But it’s not just the effects: the film takes a number of shocking 90-degree turns in the second and third acts, and the story takes its characters to places which I truly did not expect. I kind of wish I could have made it to the screening to hear the audience’s reactions to these moments; as it is, I said “Whoa” out loud, to my cat.
I also wish I could have been present for director Drew Bolduc’s Q&A. There are a few elements of the story which are teased, but never fully explored to the extent they could have been; I would be curious to know whether Bolduc plans on extending his story further, or if he simply opted for a degree of ambiguity (surely, the film’s 75-minute running time could have been expanded to accommodate additional scenes). There are times when it feels like the film almost has too many ideas, and while I do think Bolduc has enough pluck and chops to tackle them, the story perhaps could have weathered an additional draft (or a sequel).
But I don’t want to harp on the shortcomings of this charming little film. This is a film called Assassinaut, about a teenage space adventurer, and it captures the spirit of derring-do that that implies. It’s brief running time also means that it never wears out its welcome, and each development is followed by another at just the right clip. There’s independent film, and then there’s “teenagers running around the woods with lasers” independent film, and I’m always happy to see more of the latter.
* – I learned after typing this that Bolduc is, in fact, a Troma alum, having supplied special effects for Lloyd Kaufman’s recent two-part Return to Nuke ‘Em High.
dir. Drew Bolduc
Screened Sunday, 3/24 @ Brattle Theatre
Part of the 21st annual Boston Underground Film Festival— keep watching this space for the Hassle’s continuing BUFF coverage!