Ashgrove (2022)

Ashgrove had its world première at the Glasgow Film Festival 2022

Teaming up again with his co-writer Jonas Chernick from James vs. His Future Self (2019), director Jeremy LaLonde brings a dramatic, even an apocalyptic, scenario that, in at least two senses, hits close to home. For Ashgrove is both, topically, a pandemic movie, and also an intimate, intense  relationship study, in which the work-life balance is taken for a spin.

Spread through the world’s water supplies, a virus has already killed 60 million people, and is slowly – but not slowly enough – poisoning the rest. Professor of water chemistry Dr Jennifer Ashgrove (Amanda Brugel) – whose surname has lent the film its title – may well be humanity’s last hope. For two years now Jennifer has been working around the clock to find a way to destroy the virus, even if this has put great strain on both her marriage to Jason (Chernick) and her own wellbeing. Everybody wants and needs Jennifer to find the solution, and is terrified that she will break first – and sure enough, after an argument with Jason and a eureka moment in the bathroom, Jennifer rushes off to tell her boss Frank (Sugith Varughese) exactly what she has figured out, but has a dissociative episode in her car on the way to his office, and wakes up with concerned neurologist Dr Rebecca Lakeland (Christine Horne) telling her that she must take the weekend off work, destress and get back in touch with what she has been missing.

Ashgrove tracks that weekend, as Jennifer and Jason try to unwind together and to get reacquainted at their lakeside country property (also called Ashgrove). There they talk, argue, canoe on the lake, have sex, go to the local markets, and have Jennifer’s work colleague Elliot (Shawn Doyle) and his pregnant wife Sammy (Natalie Brown), as neglected as Jason, over for dinner. Yet if the whole point of the weekend is to get away from it all, realities keep resurfacing and hidden truths must out. It is not just the constant need to monitor water intake which remind us of what is happening in the world beyond, but also the anxieties that find their way (in impressionistic montage) into Jennifer’s dreams, and the little peculiarities in Jason’s behaviour serving as tells that he is facing his own immense pressures and struggling to keep up appearances of a normal, happy marriage. As revelations are made and buried secrets emerge, Jennifer learns that her private and public lives form a continuum that can be hard to disentangle.

Unusually, Ashgrove never actually shows the effects of the water-borne virus, lets the approaching end of the world play out as a domestic relationship drama, and deals mostly in the well-rehearsed routines that can keep a long-term couple together even when the spark has largely faded. There is also a Big Twist™ here, aligning the narrative more closely to the science fiction of LaLonde and Chernick’s previous collaboration – although this is revealed relatively early on, and not overplayed, as the film prefers to focus hard on its characters and their psychological make-up. Ashgrove concerns itself with the different kinds of love that we have, and the choices that we make, and if it triggers a moment of recognition – an emotional epiphany, so to speak – in the viewer, then its work is done and you’ve figured it out and followed it through to the end. 

strap: In Jeremy LaLonde’s apocalyptic feature, co-written with star Jonas Chernick, the race to end a water-borne pandemic is presented as scenes from a marriage

© Anton Bitel