‘Inheritance’: Film Review | SXSW 2017

Aaron Kovalchik
Jessica Kaye and Daniel Ahearn in 'Inheritance.'
Sexy but on the verge of silly.

Jessica Kaye stars as a troubled young woman coming home to Belize for what turns out to be a funeral in this drama, co-written and directed by Kaye herself and Laura E. Davis.

Americans in Belize get up to some highly dysfunctional family dynamics while mourning a father’s sudden death in the ambitious but over-the-top melodrama Inheritance. This writing-and-directing collaboration between Laura E. Davis (Thin Air) and actor Jessica Kaye features an impressively charismatic Kaye as the story’s leading hot mess. Character actor Mark Webber (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and Daniel Ahearn lend support as her onscreen brother and boyfriend, respectively. After premiering at SXSW this isn’t likely to set the world on fire, but it should catch some attention as a calling card for several of the key talents.

Perhaps it's completely intentional, but there's something about the choppy first 10 minutes here that suggests a chunk of storytelling ended up in the editing computer's recycle bin somewhere along the way. Also, the very lean 76-minute storyline produces an excessively elliptical narrative, making for a work that feels, depending on how you look at it, like an over-extended short or an undernourished feature.

Either way, through various bits of dialogue and the way they can't keep their sweaty paws off each other, it becomes clear that Mara (Kaye) and Aaron (Ahearn) have only been going out for a short while. They've arrived in Belize from the U.S. expecting to attend a birthday party for Mara's father, a doctor who moved to the Central American country when Mara and her brother Ben were kids, just after their mother died.

Unfortunately, Linda (Shamira Gill-Card), the daughter of Mara's dad's long-serving housekeeper Grace (Myrna Manzanares), arrives at their hotel room with some bad news: Mara's father has died suddenly in his sleep. In shock, Mara brings Aaron to the family house to make funeral arrangements with Grace and Linda, who ask her if she's called Ben. She lies and says she has, just as she also lies about how long she and Aaron have been a couple, saying they've been an item for over a year. It's suggested that Mara lies a lot, which may be the result of self-protective habits picked up in childhood.

Having heard through the local grapevine that their father is dead, Ben (Webber), who still lives in the country, shows up angry and itching to pick a fight with Mara. Aaron starts to wonder about the two siblings' odd relationship when Ben shows up at the local swimming hole and a topless Mara displays no embarrassment as they launch into an aggressive-playful water-fight-wrestling match. Various underwater shots and a highly symbolic visit to a dark bat-filled cave suggest that there's a lot of stuff going on under the surface and dark corners to explore.

Sure enough, as the evening wears on and the community gathers at the family home for a traditional wake, everyone gets drunk or high and soon secrets tumble out. It turns out that Linda and Grace, for instance, are more than just loyal servants, and to the surprise of absolutely no one in the audience, it seems the dead man was far from the paragon of virtue and benevolence the locals believed him to be.

There's an inevitable echo of Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration in Mara's big moment of truth-telling and her general eagerness to behave, along with Ben, as inappropriately as possible. However, Davis and Kaye’s script lacks the black humor and high-wire comic timing that made The Celebration such a breakthrough, and the antics of the three main leads just become a bit sordid, inexplicable and oddly tiresome by the end, even though the performances are admirably committed. Meanwhile, the Belize setting doesn't really add much to the story, though it provides visual impact and an excuse to have ominous, African-style drumming from one character that adds menace to a long montage of night-time revelry as the wake grows more debauched.

Production companies: A This Is Just a Test presentation in association with Fer De Lance Productions and Poor Rich Kids
Cast: Jessica Kaye, Daniel Ahearn, Shamira Gill-Card, Myrna Manzanares, Mark Webber, Linda Blease
Directors/screenwriters: Laura E. Davis, Jessica Kaye
Producers: Beatrice von Schwerin, Aengus James, Mark Webber
Executive producers: Steven Berger, Colin King Miller
Co-executive producer: Christopher J. Ahearn
Director of photography: Aaron Kovalchik
Production designer: Grace Alie
Costume designer: Stephanie Strate
Editors: F. Brian Scofield, Robin Gonsalves
Music: Rafaël Leloup
Music supervisor: Zach Sinick
Sales: This Is Just a Test
No rating, 76 minutes