'Jessica Forever': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
A stylish and eccentric, if slight, French twist on a well-trod genre.

Award-winning filmmakers Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel premiered their debut feature in Toronto's Plateform competition.

Imagine an installment of Divergent or The Maze Runner directed by two budding French auteurs with a penchant for hyper-stylized violence and minimalist plotting, and you'll get an idea of what's in store with the dystopian whatchamacallit Jessica Forever.

Marking the feature debut of Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel, whose shorts (As Long as Shotguns Remain, After School Knife Fight) have scooped up much renown — and a Golden Bear — on the fest circuit, this weird and sometimes wild genre-bender tends to overstay its welcome while delivering a few impressively low-key thrills. Beautifully shot and also too self-serious for its own good, the film could gain mild cult status in and out of France, with possibilities for pickups by distribs interested in sci-fi with a twist. (Shudder nabbed U.S. rights before the Toronto premiere.)

An eye-opening first sequence sets the tone, with a squad of uniformed avengers — they look like a cross between a SWAT team and a Rammstein tribute band — racing across the countryside to save a young man (Eddy Suiveng) who just jumped through a plate glass window. At first it's unclear what all the fuss is about, until we see a swarm of attack drones (they look like jacked-up toy helicopters) arrive on the scene minutes after the group has sped away.

It’s a nifty way to start a movie that sits somewhere between a Hollywood YA franchise and an avant-garde installation piece, with only a slight voiceover to guide us through what's happening. In a nutshell, the world (or at least the French government) is hunting down orphans, who rob and kill for both survival and pleasure. Our heroine, Jessica (Aomi Muyock), who seems to harness healing and levitation powers, has become a sort of Mad Max or Katniss Everdeen for the orphan resistance, leading an all-male gang of violent but lovable ruffians in their efforts to remain alive and in peace.

The plot pretty much stops there, although a few members of the hit squad — the katana-wielding killer, Raiden (Paul Hamy); the soft-hearted speed demon, Michael (Sebastian Urzendowsky); the tempestuous skinhead, Lucas (Augustin Raguenet) — help move the story forward in fits and starts. But Poggi and Vinel seem more into creating an offbeat, occasionally explosive atmosphere than in providing any sort of narrative gymnastics, using Marine Altan's lavish cinematography to chronicle the rebels' strange, if increasingly tedious, quotidian lives — especially once they escape to an island (Corsica, in fact) and await an inevitable final standoff against the evil drone army.

With a cast of muscular men who pronounce all their lines in solemn monotone, and a female leader who says only a handful of words throughout the movie, Jessica Forever relies mostly on visual magic — and there are a few moments of that — to get the job done. Yet it's not enough to sustain this high-concept/low-action film until the last act, and one has the growing sensation that the directors tried to stretch what could have been a powerful short into a thin feature.

Still, you have to admire the chutzpah for making something so out of the box and, in a way, fan-boyish, especially in a place like France, where homegrown genre movies rarely earn respect. Like other recent Gallic debuts, such as Julia Ducournau's Raw, Coralie Fargeat's Revenge and Lea Mysius' Ava, Jessica Forever sits on the border that separates the art house from the grindhouse, even if it never fully convinces in either sense. But it deserves credit for remaining so stubbornly between two worlds.

Production companies: Ecce Films, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Aomi Muyock, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Lucas Ionesco, Paul Hamy, Augustin Raguenet, Eddy Suiveng
Directors, screenwriters: Caroline Poggi, Jonathan Vinel
Producer: Emmanuel Chaumet
Director of photography: Marine Altan
Production designer: Margaux Remaury
Editor: Vincent Tricon
Composer: Ulysse Klotz
Sales: MK2
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)

In French, English
97 minutes