Panic Fest 2016 Review: EVERLASTING Fragments A Young Woman's Fall
A young woman runs laughing in a field - and in a blur. "Catch me!", she shouts, eluding both her addressee and even the camera's focus. Sunlit, soft and slo-mo, the opening images of Anthony Stabley's Everlasting may suggest something ideal and Edenic - and yet these are also the genesis of a film-within-the-film, and by the time we are seeing them, many months after they were shot, their Eve is long dead, and their idyll has become an elegy.
High school senior Matt Ortega (Adam David) had tried to capture the fleeting image of his girlfriend Jessie (Valentina De Angelis) on digicam for a video project. Yet since then, Jessie had exiled herself from Matt in her pursuit of work as a model, and was subsequently abducted, tortured and murdered. With the case run cold, all that Matt can do is seek to recover, through a combination of investigation and editing, something of Jessie's elusive, tainted identity, and to regain some fragments of Paradise Lost.
Before all that, we see adolescent Matt and Jessie, innocent perhaps in their smalltown Colorado setting, but already experimenting with sex, drink, drugs and the approaching darkness of death. As they play "creepy hide and seek" in a forbidden, "dangerous" woodland area behind town, Jessie encourages Matt to join in a frisky, foreshadowing fantasy about being attacked there by a serial killer. "We'd both be dismembered," declares Matt, "We'd be chopped up into little pieces - but in a weird way we'd be together."
Matt might as well be describing the film that he is already making, whose finished version will be a chopped-up confusion of past and present that both marks the now permanent separation of these two young lovers while also preserving forever their intimate togetherness. Everlasting itself does something similar, while cutting up even further Matt's moviemaking montage by interweaving its own 'objective', non-diegetic camerawork amid all the 'found footage'.
A rebellious goth, Jessie merges into her one person a teen desire for acting out, a personal fantasy of submissive, sadomasochistic play, and the American dream of mobility and self-amelioration - all of which lead her, tragically, toward an end that is problematically presented as a kind of inevitable destiny ("just asking for it" is a key - and troubling - line in Jessie's characterisation).
The film structures itself around two parallel (and intercut) journeys: in the first, Matt drives Jessie to her new life in Los Angeles; and in the second, half a year later, Matt returns to LA to retrace Jessie's steps in search of her killer. While Matt struggles to graft an image of the living, breathing Jessie that he remembers and loves onto the horrific fate that she has subsequently suffered, our picture of her keeps shifting. Yet even as Matt tries to fashion the late Jessie's image into one with which he can reconcile himself, we become aware of other image-makers - and in particular cynical fashion agents like Christiane (Bai Ling) or predatory photographers like Henrique (Pat Healy) - who all want a piece of her.
We also know from the start that Jessie's killer is himself a fashioner of images, and a keen filmmaker like Matt. For amongst the materials that Matt is compiling for his video memorial, there is a private DV, sent tauntingly to him, of her final, torturous ordeal. After offering an extremely impressionistic glimpse of its contents in his own film, Matt says to camera: "If I were to run it all right now, she'd be another face, another name, she'd be just like any other story you might have heard. But you wouldn't know the girl."
This is in effect a manifesto for Everlasting itself as much as for Matt's video, setting out the stall for a film that eschews the familiar clichés of bargain-basement 'torture porn' (the killer's video) for something more personal about mediated identity and loss. Yet even as Everlasting welcomely abandons one overused form of genre storytelling and dares to be different, it fails, not unlike Jessie, to forge any particularly clear new identity for itself, acquiring its definition from a negative - and from an absence.
Matt's lengthy pieces to camera fast become repetitive - something that is only partially excused by the circular nature of the narrative structure. Jessie's posturing, self-involved speeches make it very hard indeed for us to love her as much as Matt does, and therefore to engage fully with her trip down America's drain. Put differently, viewers may well not much care to "know the girl." And the film's third act (no spoiler) offers a clumsy and unsatisfying resolution of the film's different thematic strands (the desire for justice, the distraction - and destruction - of perspective), followed by yet another somewhat ho-hum voice-over summation from Matt.
There is, though, no faulting Stabley's ambitions here, as he presents a time-leaping, mixed-media kaleidoscopic vision of a young Lynchian 'woman in trouble', caught between free agency and victimhood - under the Hollywood sign.
The film's next stop on the festival circuit will be in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.A. at Panic Fest, which begins on Friday, February 5 and runs through February 7. For more information, visit the festival's official site.