Half-Life

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Sundance has been criticized in recent years for surrendering to Hollywood. Indeed, many of the movies in this year's dramatic competition have well-known actors in the cast, which is probably how they got made. But the festival still offers a showcase to truly independent filmmakers and highlights daring work that would otherwise never get any notice at all.

"Half-Life," showing in the New Frontiers section, reminds us why Sundance was launched and why it continues to have value, despite all the swag and corporate sponsors. First-time writer-director Jennifer Phang demonstrates an original talent, and though the film has imperfections and sometimes shows the strains of its low budget, it is an imaginative and deeply affecting effort. Its boxoffice prospects are limited, but it will find appreciative audiences over time.

The film is set in the not-too-distant future, when TV newscasts inform us that global warming has begun to have drastic effects all over the world. But in a suburban neighborhood of northern California, an Asian-American family is undergoing a lot of the same stresses that have always plagued families. Saura (Julia Nickson) is a single mother raising daughter Pam (Sanoe Lake) and younger son Timothy (Alexander Agate). Her new live-in lover, the much younger Wendell (Ben Redgrave), is taking a distinctly unfatherly interest in Pam. For her part, Pam is fixated on a neighbor, Scott (Leonardo Nam), the adopted son of a fundamentalist couple. Scott, however, has recently discovered his homosexuality and is having an affair with a black teacher (Lee Marks).

All of the turmoil in these two households is piercingly caught by Phang. There are plenty of moments of dark humor in the interactions of the characters, but there is also real pain and anguish. Performances vary in quality. Nickson and Lake contribute astute portrayals, but some of the supporting actors are less effective. Redgrave is too callow to capture Wendell's tortured personality, and his psychotic behavior in the final reel is not fully convincing.

But the film rests on the performance of young Agate, and here Phang has scored a triumph. Much of the film is seen through his eyes, and he conveys a wisdom well beyond his years, along with the wounds of a sensitive boy ignored or abused by the people who should be looking after him. Although the film has harsh comments to make about America's contributions to an environmental crisis, its most passionate concern is with this young boy. If we can't pay attention to our children, Phang seems to say, the earth is hardly worth saving.

Despite all that he suffers, Timothy has the resilience of many withdrawn children. He even begins to develop some supernatural powers. Phang and her expert crew execute some wonderful special effects to convey Timothy's paranormal vision. There are even a few brilliant animated sequences to suggest the boy's fears and imaginative powers. The picture is exceptionally well photographed by Aasulv Wolf Austad, and the music by Michael S. Patterson is haunting. "Half-Life" marks the debut of a promising, truly independent film artist.

HALF-LIFE
Fade to Blue Prods. in association with Mark E. Lee Prods. and Lane Street Pictures
Credits:
Screenwriter-director: Jennifer Phang
Producers: Reuben Lim, Alan T. Chan, Robert Zimmer Jr.
Executive producers: Dylan Shields, Mark E. Lee
Director of photography: Aasulv Wolf Austad
Production designer: Aiyana Trotter
Music: Michael S. Patterson
Co-producers: Ben Berkowitz, Anthony Begonia, Robert M. Chang, Kristian Hansen
Co-executive producers: Wendy Jean Bennett, Richard Hall
Editor: Harry Yoon
Supervising editor: Gloria Vela
Cast:
Pam Wu: Sanoe Lake
Timothy Wu: Alexander Agate
Saura Wu: Julia Nickson
Wendell Olson: Ben Redgrave
Scott Parker: Leonardo Nam
Jonah Robertson: Lee Marks
Richard Parker: James Eckhouse
Lorraine Parker: Susan Ruttan
Running time -- 107 minutes
No MPAA rating
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