Sundance NEXTFEST Day 1 @ Ace Hotel: LIFE AFTER BETH (Jeff Baena, 2014) / by Samuel B. Prime

LIFE AFTER BETH is frivolous in the best way possible. Although it is never completely clear why, how, or on whose authority the seemingly unending stream of supernatural and/or apocalyptic goings-on creep into the otherwise comfortably mundane life in the suburbs, in this film the expository elements do not much matter. As a result, what little set-up the filmmakers allow takes the form of poignant fragments that elide from one to the next and chiefly serve to capture the emotional devastation felt by the loss of Beth, a character we know for all of ten seconds before she disappears (ostensibly forever). Not for nothing that the title reads after, I suppose. In so doing, the filmmakers place trust in the audience that they will understand the passage of time, however brief, and register that an emotional peak is necessary in order to justify the inevitable backslide: Beth's return.

If you don't know the basic story: a boy's girlfriend, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza), unexpectedly dies after suffering a fatal snake bite while hiking on her own, but soon thereafter returns home fresh from the grave.

A high concept entry in a mostly stale and rotting sub-genre, LIFE AFTER BETH admittedly benefits from the curiosity of when Beth will return and how she will behave as a zombie. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which any viewer would buy a ticket to this film without having even a slight inclination to the imminent, much less titular, zombies in store. The film uses this to its benefit in a couple of key ways: the wait to see Beth (after death) nearly becomes as truly agonizing for the viewer as it does for her (ex?) boyfriend, Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan) and, when her reveal comes, it is antithetical to the walking dead sub-genre's once actually original expectations of gutturally utterable brain cravings, decomposing body parts, and dime-a-dozen jump scares. That is, the filmmakers can more or less expect their audience to arrive with a certain degree of knowledge and expectations, both specifically about their movie and generally about zombie movies. With a keen attention to subverting such narrative expectations, LIFE AFTER BETH proves refreshing, delightful, and playful, operating with a willful wink and nudge in the same way that MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL acknowledged the spent currency of its forebears and so took things in an altogether different silly, self-referential direction.

If the film can be said to have a weakness, it is that its dedication to simplicity and wit results in no small amount of loose yarns and dead ends. I expect that this quality is more bothersome to some (not me) than others (me). It turns out that Beth is not the only person springing up from the local cemetery, but just the first of many; a mailman, a short-order cook, and Zach's grandfather are just a few of the attic-loving decomposeurs embracing a sudden encore to life. All of this initial hubbub builds to a full-on zombie apocalypse in the span of a few days. Whether or not Zach's rocky relationship with Beth has anything to do with this is ambiguous at best - there is a frankly annoying emphasis on whether he really loves her and promises to be with her forever. There is a faint sense that his answer (and sincerity) has something to do with the undead uprising. Also, the characters seem to mostly exist in a culture devoid of the same (or a similar) level of zombie cultural saturation, as a couple of early conversations quickly turn cyclical when Beth's father (John C. Reilly) tries to no avail to explain how Beth could be dead one moment, then alive the next. I would rather they avoid the conversation altogether and take a firm, if unpopular, stance - even if that stance is confusion - rather than try to abide by any set of rules determined by its innumerable predecessors. Even so, there is a racist red herring (I am not calling the film itself racist, but rather the device employed in context) in the form of a Haitian maid who leaves town just as everybody's milk is about to turn sour. Zach seeks her guidance to learn more about the zombies and comes up embarrassed and empty-handed. And at its end, everything resolves itself apropos of nothing (or is there a connection between getting over Beth and getting the world back on track?) because every movie must end.

LIFE AFTER BETH is more about wordplay than about making precise sense, about comedy and gesture rather than about tracing a straight line, and having fun with a simple idea in spite of the glut of past and present zombie-related films, a certain popular television program, and other instances of flesh-eaters in modern media. Plus, if the use of Cologne-based krautrock group The Can's "Vitamin C" as one of the first and most noteworthy tracks (erstwhile featured in Sam Fuller's DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET) says anything about the accompanying soundtrack album, there is much to discover and love about LIFE AFTER BETH's wanton levity.

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon