[Tribeca Review] Something Else

Jeremy Gardner burst onto the scene with The Battery, an incredibly low-budget-but-no-less-effective take on the zombie apocalypse that used the end-of-days scenario to examine a relationship between two close friends. Something Else, his third film, similarly uses the monster genre to look at a decaying relationship between two people who are so totally in love and yet yearn for opposing things from their relationship.

It begins with Abby (Brea Grant) walking through a very green field with twisted trees that seem like they are reaching towards her. There’s a static noise in the background, as if a radio was just slightly out of tune with a channel. Bits and pieces of information can be briefly heard before its eaten up by the white noise. Hank (Jeremy Gardner) calls it left over sound: “cosmic microwave background radiation.” Abby thinks that’s just putting lipstick on a pig. But there’s something to what Hank thinks beyond the poetic notion.

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As Hank holds Abby in his arms, playfully talking about radio noise it’s obvious that the two are deeply in love. They are in a decrepit old house that belongs in Hank’s family. His intent is to move in and fix it up. It needs a lot of work. But in the meantime, there’s a mattress on the floor and they fall into lovemaking before it smash cuts to the sound of a shotgun, the howl of a monster and a shotgun hole in the front door of the house.

The mood has instantly changed. The house is darker; both because it’s night but also the way it's shot; full of shadows and darkness. It’s a washed out reality that clashes with the beginning’s more hazy, summery soft light glow. Hank has boarded up the entrances to the house with a sofa and a TV cabinet. He and his beard looks disheveled. Wild-eyed. He’s trained his shotgun at the door but whatever was outside is gone. Now there’s just a hole where his round struck that he precariously looks out of.

All we have to go on is a note thumbtacked to a kitchen cabinet that reads:

“Hank,
I had to go away for awhile.
I’m sorry. I love you.
-Abby”

The outside of the front door is scratched to hell, as if some large, demonic cat went crazy on it, trying to get inside. Hank is obviously depressed, judging from the amounts of alcohol he’s consumes during the day and the furtive calls he makes to Abby’s cell. He tells her voicemail that since she’s left, something has been trying to get inside the house. People think it’s a bear but he knows these woods and this is…he trails off, but it’s obvious he was going to say “something else.”

“Oh yeah. And also I think that monster ate your cat.”

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Something Else, written by Jeremy Gardner and co-directed by him and Christian Stella, is structured much like the radio white noise from the beginning. The story feels just a bit off the dial as we get to see bits and pieces of Abby and Hank’s life. We see them talking about the future. Sharing a hammock and taking selfies. The cat Hank gives her on her birthday. We see love. But there’s also a little niggling falseness behind it. That maybe we’re seeing the past through Hank’s drunk, rose-colored memories.  It’s not a lot to go on, much like the bits and pieces we could hear from the radio, but we see a couple, ten years into their relationship, unmarried but alternately joyously happy and…not, at the same time.

Jeremy Gardner carries the film on his shoulders and he brings a world-weary weight to the role as he grapples with demons both figurative and literal (maybe?). He’s charming and affable, even when he shoots his gun at a passing truck or obsessively hunts the creature at night. He also uses his small cast incredibly well. It was fun seeing writer/director Justin Benson (last year’s The Endless) who plays Abby’s brother and sheriff, Shane. He plays the dubious friend who is fed up and thinks Hank is just depressed and drunk. Meanwhile actor/comedian Henry Zebrowski kills as Hank’s friend Wade. He has an almost monologue about aliens as he and Hank hunt the creature that had me giggling.

But the heart of Something Else is Brea Grant. She takes what could have easily been a fairly one-note character and imbues it with equal parts wit, charm and sadness. Her chemistry with Jeremy's Hank is incredibly believable; sensual yet playful. Their relationship feels real and lived in and it’s not just the filters that lighten the movie when she’s on screen. But more importantly, it’s her subtle physical acting that tells more about her character and their relationship than any dialogue could.

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Consider one scene set at one of Abby’s birthdays. It’s clear that birthdays are important to her, but her friends let out the secret that they are pregnant. In one brief moment, the camera focused on her as the news is delivered, her face carries all sorts of reactions. She’s obviously very happy for her two friends, but there is a deep-seated sadness hiding behind the radiant smile she gives them, and it’s not because they are upstaging her birthday.  It’s such a small scene, but her face tells a complete story without a single word of dialogue.

Gardner pulls out all of the tricks to hint at the monster and they are surprisingly effective. A shadow that peers through a window behind a sleeping Hank, for instance. He also gets judicious use out of the errant shotgun hole in the door. A clawed hand reaches through it, at one point. A large chain, attached to a bear trap, is fed through it. It’s effective and subtle. My favorite trick involves a pitch black screen, illuminated only by shotgun blasts. It’s a tense and well-structured sequence that actually had me a little jumpy.

This is my third film for the Tribeca Film Festival and the third film that used genre trappings to really explore themes. It’s a romantic drama where the horror of a faltering relationship is examined through a literal demon outside. From the romantic beginning to the laugh-out-loud audacious ending, Something Else is quirky yet heartfelt. It’s Jeremy Gardner’s most accomplished film, yet.