Spring (2014)

First published by Sight & Sound, June 2015

Review: Writer/director Justin Benson and his co-director Aaron Moorhead have established themselves as specialists in the cross-breeding of genres. Their low-budget debut Resolution (2012) took a familiar cabin-in-the-woods scenario for a Pirandello-esque spin, sending its principal characters on a quest to meet their maker; and ‘Bonestorm’, their contribution to the 2014 anthology V/H/S Viral, equipped skaterboys with GoPro cameras to depict Mexican satanists, the undead and demons as just another escapade in the slackers’ average day. Death, and the unusual blurring of different film forms, also dominate their latest, Spring, although love too is now incorporated into the genetic makeup.

Spring begins with Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) at his cancerous mother’s bedside as she tells him she loves him before quietly passing away, casting the twentysomething ex-student adrift as the last in his line. Jobless, in trouble after a violent incident in a bar, and with nothing more to lose, Evan uses his small inheritance to flee to Italy. Still grieving, he ends up in a pretty coastal town where he begins to put down new roots, getting a job as a farmhand to local widower Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti), and embarking on a whirlwind affair with well-traveled evolutionary geneticist Louise (Nadia Hilker).

“Nature is crazy”, comments Evan, amazed to see oranges and lemons growing on a single tree. “Old tree uses new tree”, explains Angelo, adding that “volcano makes good soil” – even a volcano which, two millennia earlier, wiped out an entire city’s populace (including Louise’s ancestors). Yet what dies in winter often comes back to life in spring, and even as Evan begins to bloom again in Louise’s presence and to contemplate a different future together with her, this engaging young couple’s spring fling begins to resonate, over the course of a single week, with the cycles, recurrences and mutations that define all life – and death. If Louise will turn out to be an all-new (yet ancient) form of movie monster, the film itself is also a strange hybrid whose essential romance is enhanced, rather than disrupted, by the admixture of horror elements – and if the film’s scope extends to the outer limits of science, history and theology, everything is grounded in the leads’ charming, funny characters and believable performances.

“What do you like more, pool or ocean?” Although this question might seem natural enough when posed alongside the porous Italian coastline, Louise’s words allude to the place of the finite within the infinite, as her own mutant immortality plays ocean to Evan’s more circumscribed (gene) pool. For much as its tourist-town setting looks out over the boundless sea beyond, Spring exposes its week-long affair to eternity, extending way beyond the normal limits of the horror genre to engender a creature feature at the shoreline of biology and romance. Splicing the DNA of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), this true original manages to be both melancholic and hopeful, contemporary and timeless.

Synopsis: California, present day. After his mother – his last remaining relative – dies, Evan gets into a vicious bar fight which sees him fired from his job as the bar’s sous-chef and pursued by a gang and the police alike. Still grieving and with nothing left to lose, Evan heads to Italy, and in a coastal town spends his days working as a farmhand for the widower Angelo, and his nights with Louise, a sexually forward student of evolutionary genetics. In fact Louise is a quirk of nature: a mutated human who has fallen pregnant every twenty-two years for nearly two millennia, giving birth to a rejuvenated version of herself after a very brief period of gestation wherein she undergoes highly unstable (and aggressive) transformations. Having got herself inseminated by Evan and concerned that she might hurt him, Louise dumps him, but he, distraught, returns to her house and sees her in monstrous form. In love and unperturbed, he decides to stay with Louise until her final climactic transformation despite the danger to himself. With the immigration police on his tail, Evan travels with Louise to Naples, and then to Pompeii. Louise reveals that her own mother was made mortal by the chemicals that her body produced when she fell in love; after giving birth to Louise and passing on her condition, she and her husband were killed there in the eruption of 79 B.C.E.. Evan sees in the dawn with Louise, hoping she too will fall in love.

© Anton Bitel