By Peg Aloi
I was blown away by how good After We Leave looks, its subtlety and plausibility and confident simplicity.
After We Leave, directed by Aleem Hossain. Screening at the Science Fiction Film Festival, Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA, February 14.
Setting a story in a dystopian future is always a challenge. And the difficulties of crafting the setting demanded by a post-apocalyptic calamity are multiplied for indie filmmakers on a budget. But After We Leave, a new feature debut by Aleem Hossain, is a stellar example of what can be accomplished through innovative writing and direction. I’d say After We Leave is more speculative fiction than science fiction, but it works very effectively as a minimalist, yet powerful, excursion in both genres. (The filmmaker will be appearing on February 14 to introduce his movie at the Somerville Theatre.)
The narrative begins with a shot of a man sleeping outdoors, his dirty hands clutching a blanket over him. This is Jack (Brian Silverman), and he’s traveling with a knapsack and a grim expression. He hitchhikes to Los Angeles, a city where the haves and the have-nots lead very different lives, much as they do today. But in this era’s not-too-distant future, residents of the city, and people like them across the country, dream of being chosen via a lottery for special visas that will allow them to relocate to a space colony. There’s no need for us to see the off-earth location because, for the characters, the fantasy spot looms large as a longed-for escape from the gritty routine of survival they’re living every day.
We know there’s a water shortage, because bottled water is too expensive for most people to afford, and people like Jack have to drink soda or juice. They also find it perfectly normal to eat a can of apple pie filling for lunch. Fresh healthy food is not available in this timeline. Why not? It’s not explained, though it is intriguing to speculate. We see trees and landscaping, so it doesn’t appear to be climate related. What we do learn is that Jack is locked out of his home (which also looks deserted), and that other people he encounters are having trouble holding onto their living spaces. Neither do they have an opportunity to upgrade to better homes in safer neighborhoods. The disaster scenario seems to be severe economic inequality, and the hoarding of resources that comes with poverty. Again, a not unfamiliar reality to those living in the present.
Jack is searching for his wife Vanessa, who he left behind to go work in the Yukon as a miner for what seems to be several years. He has received their visa confirmation in the mail, an odd happenstance that is not explained when he goes to fill out paper work at a harried government office, which feels like a nondescript DMV. Jack has just three days to locate his wife so they can get on the next space shuttle out. To where? Who knows? Apparently, anywhere is better than Earth. Jack’s not in touch with Vanessa and can’t figure out where to find her, which suggests that telecommunications have also broken down. This isolation is reflected in the fact that Jack shows up unannounced, knocking on the doors of his former friends and associates, surprising them. In some cases he inspires a very cold response. Still, Jack is able to draw on a few vestiges of friendship to help gather clues to locate Vanessa.
One real strength of this script is the way that it portrays interpersonal connections among people who’ve known each other a very long time. Little needs to be said, and exposition is kept to a minimum. Nothing ruins a screenplay faster then conversations dedicated to relating excessive details of a back story. In a crisis, being able to size people up quickly is a necessary survival skill. It’s clear from the expressions on these characters’ faces whether they find Jack to be trustworthy and if they will be loyal to him in his time of need.
The performances from the entire cast are pitch perfect in this regard, especially veteran TV actor Clay Wilcox, who plays Eric, a sort of mercenary kingpin who commands a group of thugs; he revels in his power over anyone desperate enough to trust him. Then there’s Morgan (Anslem Richardson, of CSI: Los Angeles), an old friend who wants to help Jack, but resents his visa status. Morgan’s own family has waited for its chance to escape for years; there is a suggestion that his mixed race marriage is part of the hold up, a disturbing implication. Lexi (Anita Leeman Torres) is a savvy survivor who still carries a torch for Jack, and has her own plans for escape. No one is where they want to be, and everyone is angling to be somewhere else or to improve their distressed lot somehow.
Hossain’s direction is agile, creating an artful, professional mise-en-scène through the skillful use of minimalist production values. Chanda Dancy’s score is excellent as well, maintaining an effectively spare, melancholy vibe. Julie Kirkwood’s cinematography is gorgeous (her work on Destroyer and The Blackcoat’s Daughter may be familiar to viewers), and it is enhanced by the excellent work of editor Lori Lovoy-Goran. (Also, it is gratifying to see so many women working on this production!)
I was blown away by how good this film looks, its subtlety and plausibility and confident simplicity. The metaphor of finding the right home looms heavily: is it Canada? Sweden? A nice house in the suburbs? Or perhaps it is just a mode of living that isn’t mired in corruption and greed. Jack’s determination propels him forward, to a finale that feels like a short story all its own, a stunning conclusion that weaves together unspoken layers of desire, regret, and acceptance.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.