Sunday, July 22, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Lifechanger--Justin McConnell (2018)

Drew (Jack Foley in this iteration) gets on with the labor of survival in Justin McConnell's Lifechanger (2018)
One of Fantasia Film Festival's many pleasures is the ability not only to see amazing new horror films, but also see them first.  Fantasia 2018 screened the world premiere of Justin McConnell's thoughtful and gruesome feature Lifechanger, and while I haven't seen the director's other work, this body jumping genre piece really impressed me (and a good chunk of the Fantasia audience that stuck around, full of questions, during the Q & A).

Lifechanger introduces us to Drew in its first moments through the character's voice-over, a remarkably consistent insight into the character as it jumps from person to person through claiming their bodies, and seemingly their memories as well.  Drew has just "taken" Emily Roberts (Elitsa Bako), leaving a rather desiccated corpse double beside it, one of which the body thief will quickly dispose.  So, from the first moments, viewers are introduced to the film's monster, quite sympathetically.  As we know, subjective narration can really align us with characters that commit questionable actions with equally questionable motivations.  Drew states that it takes over people to survive, not with any malicious intent, but out of desperation as its body begins to rot (which creates some nice goopy moments).  Over the course of the film, Drew inhabits a variety of differently gendered bodies, although the film loses some of the subversiveness this gender swapping might entail, by 1) maintaining Drew's voice-over by a distinctly male actor (Bill Oberst Jr.) and 2) by having the character's mission be the single-minded pursuit of melancholy Julia (Lora Burke), with which Drew had a "love connection" with a couple of years ago while inhabiting the body of her husband, Richard, who happened to up-and-disappear shortly after the couple's son died.  Coincidence?  You'll notice that I'm trying to avoid male or female pronouns when discussing Drew, because despite the film's narrative leanings, Drew is definitely "other."

Julia chatting with Rachel aka Drew at the Monarch Lounge
Julia is the very picture of loss, and Drew does whatever it takes to be near her, meeting up at her drinking haunt, The Monarch Lounge, in a variety of bodies/guises.  Drew can either accelerate its bodily decay (by snorting prodigious amounts of blow) or stave it off (through antibiotics), and some of the film's most exciting tensions circle around "the authorities" discovering Drew's "body farm" full of previous incarnations, and hunting down Rachel, who wisely becomes Robert (Jack Foley) just when the police are closing in.  Another bonus is the fact that Rachel was a dental assistant, so she had access to quite a few antibiotics that Drew uses to slow down his decomp while it courts a sadly clueless Julia as her new beau.  Yet, Drew is a monster with a conscience, and it wears the weight of its crimes heavily; when it decides to tell Julia its true nature....well, things don't go quite like it had planned. 

The necessity to change bodies more frequently, for its survival, weighs heavily on Drew
While some people might be put off by the humanizing of Drew, the film's consistent voice-over led to an increased consistency in relation to the performance of a variety of different actors, all who seem to clearly embody Drew, whether housed in a male or female body.  The only thing that really sticks for me, and which the director mentioned frankly in the Q & A, is the "stalking as romance" trope that underlies the majority of the narrative.  While McConnell suggests that the film is an examination of toxic masculinity, I think the film also really compels viewers to hope that Drew can capture Julia's heart, no matter what form it takes.  The film makes it hard to be really critical of Drew--what's a body thief to do if it doesn't want to die, right?

Credit thus goes to both McConnell for writing such well-drawn characters, and for the first-rate performers (many of whom took to the stage at the Q & A) who embodied them.  Lora Burke's Julia is by turns witty and tragic, and always eminently likeable, while Drew's iterations, shackled with its bodily memories, are each utterly unique, but then subtly changed once they transform into Drew.  The fact that the cast pulls off this trick with such agility speaks to both their outstanding talent and McConnell's masterful direction.  I've been careful not to give anything away, but the ending of this film is a doozy--kind of gross, and quite thought-provoking.  I do hope that Lifechanger gets the screenings it deserves.  After theaters and VOD, it would be nice if Netflix or Shudder picked up this gem so that it reaches a larger audience.  Highly recommended!!