'Astraea': Film Review

Jean-Marc Joseph
"Astraea"
Evocative rather than overwhelming

After a deadly plague wipes out most of the North American population, a brother and sister seek to reunite with surviving family members

Entirely bereft of cyborgs, zombies, or superheroes, Kristjan Thor’s sophomore feature is a contemplative post-apocalyptic drama grounded by an accessible futuristic scenario and fine ensemble performances. Although showier fare often tends to overwhelm smaller-scale material like Astraea, it’s a film with sufficient singularity of vision to gradually build an appreciative audience with wider exposure.

It's been two years since almost the entire North American population succumbed to the highly communicable, deadly disease known as "the drops." In that time, teenage Astraea’s (Nerea Duhart) only companion on a dangerous trek from the West Coast to northeastern Canada is her mid-20s half-brother Matthew (Scotty Crowe). Frequently experiencing confusing visions that may indicate emerging clairvoyance, Astraea relies on her extrasensory abilities to help guide them on their trip. Her talent falters, however, when they unexpectedly run across a 30-ish couple living fairly comfortably in an isolated New England farmhouse, the first people they’ve seen on their entire journey.

Their initially hostile encounter, which almost results in Matthew shooting shotgun-wielding James (Dan O’Brien) as he tries to protect his cousin Callie (Jessica Cummings), gradually de-escalates when the guns are lowered and Callie hesitantly invites Astraea and Matthew to stay for a homecooked venison dinner. Following a few days of recuperation, Astraea is eager to move on, hopeful that she and Matthew will discover their younger brother and grandmother still alive in Nova Scotia, as her intermittent visions suggest. They have to delay their plans, however, after Astraea suffers a concussion in an accident. As her convalescence stretches into weeks, Matthew and Callie draw closer together, much to the frustration of James, who still doesn’t trust the newcomers’ intentions and experiences frequent fits of jealousy over the unexpected rivalry for Callie’s affection.

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Thor, who partnered with screenwriter Ashlin Halfnight on their debut feature Diving Normal, crafts Astraea as an eerily resonant piece of speculative fiction sustained by a consistently elegiac tone and realistic performances, rather than grandiose narrative devices or intrusive special effects. Stylistically, Astraea leans more toward domestic drama than sci-fi, with a reliance on naturalistic details and character development to convey the unsettling impression of a vastly depopulated continent.

Central to the uncertainty surrounding the group’s precarious situation is the inconsistency of Astraea’s clairvoyant abilities, which could reunite her family, or lead them all to disaster. As Astraea’s impatience and James’ hostility intensify, their destructive impulses threaten to endanger everyone’s survival. Rather than isolating any one character as a principal antagonist, however, Halfnight’s script and the group’s imperiled situation throw each character’s virtues and shortcomings into stark relief. The cast’s strong ensemble showing is highlighted by newcomer Duhart’s turn as Astraea, whose apparent open-faced sincerity conceals a mysterious degree of wariness and duplicity.

Production companies: Portage Creative, Round One Production

Cast: Nerea Duhart, Scotty Crowe, Dan O’Brien, Jessica Cummings

Director: Kristjan Thor

Screenwriter: Ashlin Halfnight

Producers: Scotty Crowe, Jessica Cummings, Ashlin Halfnight, Kristjan Thor

Director of photography: Matthew Mendelson

Production designer: James Bolenbaugh 

Editor: Jackeline Tejada

Music:  Phil Carluzzo

  

No rating, 95 minutes

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