For as long as humans have existed, there’s been a longing to explain that which we don’t comprehend. This longing gave rise to myths and legends born out of trying to rationalize why the sun sets and rises as well as entire faiths which attempt to explain our purpose. The need to better understand ourselves as more than just an accident of science drives us in ways we rarely realize or acknowledge. This desire for understanding is also a great well for philosophical exploration, as is the case with writer/director James Bird’s third feature film We Are Boats. Combining the notion of what comes next post-life with the idea of “no accidents,” Bird constructs a story in which several tales of lives at a crossroads converge on one-another as an Earth-bound angel moves between them to assist in their transition from one pivotal moment in their lives into another. We Are Boats is an intriguing drama more for what it says and, in effect, gets its audience to ponder than for what it does.
Six months into her job assisting souls with transitions, angel Francesca (Angela Sarafyan) is growing ever impatient. She requested the job on Earth helping people make choices which would keep them on Earth or send them on to Heaven as a means of getting the chance to say goodbye to someone she left behind, yet her boss, Sir (Uzo Aduba), remains cautious about enabling Francesca’s chance. It’s not Francesca’s incredible record of success which makes Sir unsure, it’s the more Earthly, unorthodox methods which Francesca employs that make Sir hesitant. It suggests Francesca’s reluctance to stay attached to her old life, something which this final goodbye may empower her to let go of. As a particularly complicated job sends Francesca from Reno, NV, to Los Angeles, CA, her old hometown, where she herself must decide to hold on or let go.
The basis for We Are Boats is an interesting notion. There is an angel network tasked with offering guidance in times of great crisis which can lead to life or death. This isn’t moving bullets or stopping time in some dramatic or mystical way, rather, it’s about revealing connections or notions which the individual already possesses and getting said person to acknowledge it. Where it looks and feels like guidance, it’s more like reaffirming free will. This aspect is what enables Boats to jump from a gritty and overt supernatural piece to a character-focused drama, which is particularly important given the truly dark manner in which the film opens and the imagery Bird uses to signal Francesca’s rebirth. Interestingly, Bird makes sure to include that, like any other system, the angel network possesses flaws in which not all people achieve guidance. This is obviously an attempt to address the larger question of “why some people and not all,” while also keeping the narrative squarely focused on Francesca’s unresolved issues. Even though Boats is an ensemble story, Francesca’s is by far the most interesting and engaging, yet, strangely, it’s the one which feels the most incomplete to the point where a coda is added post-title card pre-credits to attempt to give her story a more concrete ending. Except, this addition somehow makes her story more vague while it manages to clear up only a few questions marks. Considering her story is the one to which the audience is first introduced, the fact that it’s not her story that propels the larger emotional beats is strange and off-putting.
In essence, We Are Boats comes across as being less interested in existing as a clear-focused narrative telling one story and is more interested in being an idea which is discussed later. There’s quite literally no problem with a film containing multiple stories or arcs in order to tell a full story: look at Love, Actually, Mars Attacks!, or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Each of these films contains a larger story into which individual stories are packaged with them all converging by the end. The trick with these movies, however, is that they are more typically following an idea, rather than a character. In the case of Boats, after the opening, initial set-up, and the conclusion of the first job we see Francesca engage in, the rest of the film doesn’t so much follow her, but the aftermath of that first job. Thematically this is interesting as a means of exploring the unintended consequences, the ripple effect, which occur after a loss. Narratively, Boats appears to jump from person to person, idea to idea, in a concentrated effort to get to the conclusion without taking into consideration Francesca’s personal journey. This is particularly important as it’s made clear that Francesca’s job is a twofer (that it starts in Reno, but carries forward to L.A.), suggesting that her role is focused on only two lives in the story. Due to this focus, Francesca stopping to chat with a homeless woman (played by Pulp Fiction’s Amanda Plummer) or getting involved in a strange love-triangle which is tangentially related to the terminally ill Cliff (Oscar nominated Graham Greene) makes no sense. The former seems to allow a literal conversation to take place about death, while the latter is vaguely related to Francesca’s job in a roundabout way but is very clearly trying to get the audience to a moment of emotional payoff. It’s to Bird’s credit that despite the seemingly wayward approach to the story, which seems to halt its own story just to espouse on the nature of life and death and leads to a slightly disjointed experience, the emotional payoff Bird builds toward in his ensemble story absolutely delivers. Frankly, you’d have to be heartless not to feel something.
We Are Boats is a bit of a contradiction all around. The performances are largely strong, yet several are staged in a way where you can’t tell if the actors are doing line-readings or are performing scenes with someone. Bird’s direction gets clever in some scenes (the whole entire sequence where Francesca engages in the first part of her job, specifically) where the camerawork is thoughtful, concentrated, and engaging. In other scenes, like when the camera swirls quickly around Francesca as she speaks to Sir, is more dizzying than emotionally evocative. Then there’re the thematic elements which combine a serious meditation on life and death, and on free will versus providence with a foundation built on a woman just trying to do right by her loved ones. There’s a great deal to unpack here, some of which works in totality, some which doesn’t. One thing, however, is undoubtedly clear: it’s that love pervades the whole of Boats, and it is at its strongest when it centers on Francesca. The fact that Bird crafted her as fallible makes her relatable and Sarafyan absolutely nails the constant oscillation of vulnerable gentleness and cutting aggression which simultaneously drives and pours out of Francesca. However, despite her performance and the intriguing concepts Boats tries to explore, the film fails to deliver its intended emotional wallop as it tries to balance character storylines and narrative intent while keeping Francesca connected. Even aware of this, there’s something about We Are Boats to which audiences will relate, even if it isn’t as a whole work.
In select theaters beginning March 8th, 2019. Available on DVD and on VOD beginning March 26th, 2019.
No special features available at the time of review.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.