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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

SIFF Review: Without

Note: I first saw Without at the Sarasota Film Festival, where it was one of the films in competition for the jury on which I served.

It isn’t every day that a festival film by a first-time director, starring an unknown, first-time actress, catches my attention in the way Without has. The feature debut of both writer/director Mark Jackson and his leading lady, Joslyn Jensen, Without is a tense, taut psychological thriller, directed with a steady hand, and practically perfect in its pacing and tone.

In case you’re wondering, that’s actually rather difficult to achieve. I don’t think I’ve seen it done this successfully in more than a handful of films — 13 (Tzameti) and Grace, Primer and Cube all come to mind by way of comparing how these very different films all made smart, economical use of good storytelling, tension and dramatic effect to be excellent in spite of very small budgets.

Without follows a young woman, Joslyn, on a ferry as she heads to a job as a caregiver for a wheelchair band elderly man on a remote corner of Whidbey Island, Washington. What’s a nice young girl like her doing in a place like this? And is the seemingly innocuous old man really as incapacitated as he seems? And most importantly … what happens if you put the knives in the dishwasher?

Because the old man’s son and daughter-in-law are almost Stepford-like in the intensity with which they lay out the rules Joslyn is to follow, which have been written down in what the wife refers to with a nervous chuckle as “the Bible” for how to run the house. There’s a very carefully drawn, slightly sinister undertone to what Joslyn sees of the family’s happy-happy exterior before they pile into the family van and head off for their vacation that helps a great deal in building the underlying tension in the film — particularly if you’ve seen enough fucked-up-family films (Dogtooth, anyone?) to know that there’s any number of ways in which unhappy families can be interesting to explore in an independent film. It’s just enough to keep you off-kilter, uncertain what to expect next.

The inciting incident that sets the story in motion actually happens before the film starts, and everything else in the film happens the way it does because of the main character’s reaction to that event. The storyline is deceptively simplistic, but Jackson finds ways to delve deeper into grief and guilt to keep the story moving along. The idea a young girl, alone but for an infirm (maybe) old man, in the middle of nowhere, with no cell phone coverage, is psychologically exploited to great effect here. It helps that Joslyn’s a child of the technology age, probably not used to being out of cell phone range of her friends and family for as long as she can remember. Cutting her off by setting the film in a remote location is a smart set-up, as is the idea to have one tiny spot in the house — in the old man’s room — where her cellphone can get any signal at all.

Speaking of cell phones, if there was an award given at the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Use of Technology in a film (and maybe there should be), Without would be a contender for the crown. Joslyn’s iPhone is used almost as a character in the film, a stand-in of sorts for a person, and it’s one of the least-contrived reasons for working an iPhone into a plot that I’ve seen. Like everything else in the field — including the ferry ride over — it’s smartly and economically used to great effect, and there are subtleties in this and many other scenes that you ponder later as you put the pieces together.

Jensen’s performance is great; she conveys fragility, strength, fear and vulnerability without one false note or sense of grandstanding. I’ve said this before, but it bears saying again that if Without had played Sundance (Jackson told me they did submit to Sundance but it was a rough cut), I have no doubt that Jensen would have been talked about in the same breath as the other “It Girls” there this year. Another couple solid indie roles under her belt and she could be a Carey Mulligan. She reminded me here a lot of Brittany Murphy circa 8 Mile.

Jackson shows a lot of promise as a director, based on this debut. He knows how to take a vision and meticulously control the execution, but beyond that he seems to have an innate grasp of tone and flow that some writers just have naturally. It’s going to be very interesting to see his next couple films (assuming he makes more, and I hope he does). But for now, this is one feature debut you want to seek out for yourself.

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