It is entirely human to draw fear from the unknown. How does one plan for it? Prepare for it? Is it the loss of control or autonomy that one fears? Or is it something else entirely? When we look into the dark abyss, how we respond says a great deal about ourselves and this is a large part of what writer/director John Rosman’s feature directorial debut New Life (having its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2023) explores through a winding tale of two women on a path of inevitable collision.
Afraid and on the run, Jessica Murdock (Hayley Erin) doesn’t have a specific plan other than she’s headed for the boarder. She doesn’t have any tools or method, but she has a heading and, for now, that’s enough to keep her motivated. Unbeknownst to her, on her trail is Elsa Gray (Sonya Walger), a seasoned retrieval expert with a team behind her and a great deal of resources, laser-focused on bringing Jessica back dead or alive. Neither realizes the connection they share and the significance it will bring to the hunt or, more importantly, how the resolution will extend from these two and unto us all.
To discuss New Life without spoiling anything about it is tricky due to the narrative structure. See, in order to amplify the intrigue, Rosman opts to start the film in media res, with Jessica in a disheveled state, dirty, bruised, and bloody, walking down a street. We don’t know what’s happening to her or why, but she’s terrified and on the move. It’s not until well into the film that we, the audience, learn her name. It’s a smart move on Rosman’s part, placing us even more in the dark than Jessica is, forcing us to examine every movement, every glance, every mark, and every choice to derive meaning. There’re enough context clues between Erin’s performance and the script for us to realize that Jessica isn’t a bad person at heart, that she’s lost more than we can possibly imagine, and that all she wants is freedom. Put another way, she’s desperately searching for a new life.
On the flip side, there’s Walger’s Elsa, whom Rosman treats more as an open book to us, with us being firmly aware of what she’s running from and the ways in which she uses her work to distract her, to try to convince herself that everything is within her control. In contrast to Jessica, Elsa’s motives are plain and so are her surroundings. The production and set design is minimal, indicating someone with few connections and/or someone who’s never around long enough to invest in their space. In the little bit we see of Jessica’s home, there’s color and style. It feels lived in whereas Elsa’s feels rented, devoid of personality. It’s a smart choice as it conveys Elsa’s separation from life versus Jessica’s strong pull toward it. It’s also an interesting contrast to communicate that despite the openness and clarity, there’s still a great deal of things we don’t know regarding her employers and the larger stakes. Instead, through the Elsa POV, Jessica is described as a “subject” whose freedom is dangerous for someone or something. This mission gives Elsa a purpose, enabling her to dive into her work and, therefore, give the audience someone who can provide the answers that may be missing from the Jessica side of the story. What we do learn is that Elsa is in her last days in her position, forcing her to consider life outside of her job and what a life without the hunt looks like.
The story really does hinge on the performances by Erin and Walger due to the secrecy of the plot. We do learn more as we go, Rosman dolling out pieces of Jessica’s background throughout the film with the major revelation only being unveiled late in the game. The control of information like this is extremely purposeful in ensuring that both the audience and the characters have time to connect with the situation so as to be able to respond appropriately. Personally, I think the choices by Rosman within the narrative need to be sat with before rendering judgement. In fact, do your best to see the film with someone so that you can discuss it — all the complications, all the revelations, all the theories that Rosman utilizes — because failing to do so may result in anger and frustration with no place to go. At least, that’s how this reviewer felt upon the truth unfolding and being able to talk things through with EoM Editor Crystal Davidson (absent from the screening, sadly) enabled me to consider a different perspective so that I could calm down and explore the concepts Rosman puts forward. It was so easy to knee-jerk a response based on my own perspective without taking into account the wider implications of the concept involving Jessica’s part of the story. Comparatively, Elsa’s portion of the story is handled with impressive grace and dignity, both within the character decisions and the ways in which Walger plays the role, with refreshing honesty versus a noir-like grit.
The fascinating thing about New Life is the way in which the name can be interpreted or reinterpreted within the context of the film. At first, it’s clear that it’s a play on how the two women are at two vastly different stages of existence with their own respective (and significant) problems and are looking for something new. Jessica is running from a place and a people to whom she cannot return, the only freedom for her coming in starting over; whereas Elsa is at the end of a road professionally, with her conflict both internal and biological. Then there’s the larger issue at play, the part that can’t be discussed, that speaks to a wider interpretation of “new life” wherein something is born, potentially replacing something else. How one responds to the responsibility of being replaced or requiring replacement says a lot about how one feels regarding the themselves and the void. Do we see ourselves as strictly unique or part of a system? I’m not entirely sure that Rosman presents a clear and distinct answer to the questions posited through the film, but there’s no doubt that it will start conversations.
Screening during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Fantasia New Life webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.