Fantasia Fest 2023 Review: A Chase Takes a Different Direction in John Rosman’s Inventive “New Life”

Frank (Blaine Palmer) is up to something in “New Life,” eyeing a piece of bacon that his wife Janie (Betty Moyer) has given their guest Jessica (Hayley Erin) for breakfast when he has become accustomed to healthier options when he sits down in the morning. Out in the woods, they surely don’t get many visitors, so this is a bit of a special occasion and when Jessica leaves it on her plate uneaten, Frank is certain to take it, much to his wife’s chagrin, particularly when she’s already frustrated to barely gets any answers out of the stranger who came to their door the night before.

There are ulterior motives abound in writer/director John Rosman’s cleverly conceived thriller where details about where Jessica has been only gradually come to light, and rarely from her. She is obliged to put up with at least a few questions from Frank and Janie for their hospitality, but reticent to talk about the ring on her finger or where she’s headed — a simple “North” has to suffice. The better question is what she’s running from, one that also could be asked of Elsa Gray (Sonya Walger), the operative of a shadowy organization tasked with chasing her, only as her superior Raymond (Tony Amendola) notes upon giving her the assignment, her legs don’t appear to be in the best shape. Dismissed as a pulled ankle while jogging, it is clearly much more and Rosman creates an unconventional story about the hunter and the hunted in which neither have time to be afraid of one another and each can consider themselves captive the second they start running.

Rosman has said the inspiration for “New Life” was an encounter he had with Summer Whisman, who appears briefly in the film and ultimately passed away from ALS, and while to give too much more away would rob the film of at least a little of its suspense, the filmmaker finds a unique way to externalize the all-consuming nature of a disease, at least mentally when physically one remains fit, and the film is particularly potent as the world emerges from the COVID pandemic and the idea of staying put and traveling seem equally dangerous. Although Frank warns Jessica upon leaving their forest retreat that “there aren’t too many people who are too kind these days,” the film often shows the reverse is true as people go out of their way to help Jessica, including a barkeeper named Molly (Ayanna Berkshire), and there’s nothing that she or Elsa should be afraid of more than giving into their worst thoughts when they don’t have a full handle on what they’re experiencing. By using tried-and-true genre framework to envision a different kind of villain, Rosman runs the risk of indulging in tropes that he intends to subvert, but more often than not, it’s a jolting sensation to see something like a trembling hand reach for a door and not knowing which side the scare is actually on. The same may not be said for those on screen, but it’s a door that’s well worth opening.

“New Life” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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