'We Are Boats' review: An existential mishmash that examines life through the eyes of death
‘We Are Boats’ avoids the trappings of the supernatural genre as it explores friendship, love, family, and life itself, in a truly captivating and novel way
To stare death in the face. No, it is not a red demon with a bifurcated tail and pitchfork or a hooded grim reaper with a scythe. In ‘We Are Boats,’ death is a lanky, angular woman with piercing green eyes. The movie starring Angela Sarafyan and Luke Hemsworth is truly out there, really out there.
Francesca (Sarafyan) is a high-class escort, plastic and doll-like, her piercing green eyes being the only natural thing about her. It beggars belief but, in a twist of fate, Francesca ends up in some sort of heaven/purgatory. Here, that takes the form of the great outdoors. From this moment forward, she looks a lot more natural. Few in Hollywood beam of natural beauty like Sarafyan. It’s rather refreshing.
She is an angel of death, or is employed to be, although this isn’t explicitly revealed till much later. In need of wanting to be around her child, she is willing to trade the ethereal outdoors for a city.
Sir (Uzo Aduba) hires Francesca to do death’s bidding, though the latter seems unqualified. Death is a corporate structure, rigid and without compassion. Francesca has her ways in administering divine justice. Early into the job, she is told to keep sexual encounters to a minimum. While these premises may put the flick in the supernatural genre, it is, in essence, a drama. Life, friendships, love, family, light and the like; think of a Mike Leigh compilation on steroids.
So, what does it get right and what does it get wrong? The cinematography is by no means cutting edge. While nothing like James Cameron or the Coen brothers, it is novel in that you can tangibly feel the everyday people in Reno, Nevada, where the movie is set and Francesco deployed — a diverse place.
It must be pointed out that, 41 percent of the cast were people of color, 50 percent females and 45 percent of the crew were women.
The unsteady camera work, often not from the best angle, rendering an amateur quality to the footage, is deliberate. In fact, it could be said the diverse setting of Reno, with an aptly diverse cast, in terms of sex, race, class, married to the seemingly novice camera work, really gives the movie an avant-garde feel, which does its job in keeping the viewer captivated as the plot turtles along in no man’s land.
Yes, it is way too far into the movie that what’s happening is made completely clear. When we are given palpable context of what is going down, it’s just all over the place. How? Why? What’s happening? For too long is the viewer left in the dark. If you prefer not to feel lost, it is likely a distraction or time-rationing impulses kick in and cause you to switch off. It is only in the 71st minute that we are truly let into the plot.
“Only people who are about to die can see me,” Francesca says. Till that moment, the responsibility of holding our attention, is solely on the avant-garde feel from cast, setting and camera work, which, as I said, it manages to pull-off, but only just.
The drama factor accelerates to a crescendo as the movie progresses. A notable performance by Kristin Minter bears a mention, certainly. Amanda Plummer, you’ve seen her stand on diner furniture in a Tarantino masterpiece, putting the fear of god in its patrons as she kicked off the chef d'oeuvre.
Here, she is a lot more docile. Why didn’t her career soar after ‘Pulp Fiction’? She plays a homeless person and, if the drama hasn’t driven the point in yet, Plummer’s performance will make you well up.
The solicited married guy who agreed to $150/hour, the stranger on the bus, the saintly homeless person, the guilty woman who cheated, the suspected woman who didn’t, the jealous fiancé, all in someway acquainted to the harbinger of death, see their stories tied together. For those who survive death’s jaw, there’s redemption, forgiveness, closure and, most importantly, hope, as they come full-circle. Watch out for a few welcome curve-balls that keep things interesting.
From Native-American director James Bird, whose vision was to “show us how connected to each other we really are”, ‘We Are Boats’ premiered at AFI Cannes and bagged the best feature award. It went on to play the Napa Valley Film Festival, Santa Fe Film Festival, and was screened as the opening night film at the Orlando film Festival.
"I wanted to make a film that will remind people that sometimes all it takes is one stranger entering your life, for a brief moment or two, to completely change your life. Maybe it’s a few words, maybe it’s a kind conversation, or something as simple as receiving a compliment, but whatever it is, we all need to connect with people to make our lives better, fuller, more colorful," Bird said.
The movie opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo on March 8 and is out on DVD/VOD March 26. It currently holds a rather generous IMDb rating of 8.2.