When the audience is introduced to Jessica Murdock (Hayley Erin) she is frantically seeking shelter as blood drips from the top of her head. Is she injured? Did she hurt someone? The answers to such questions are not immediately available. All the viewer knows is that she is trying to survive the day as men with guns search for her. It is a stark contrast to Elsa Gray (Sonya Walger), a woman who seems frustrated that she must endure another day. Standing in front of a mirror as post-it notes with positive affirmations about transformation stare back at her.
While the two women could not be more different, they share a commonality in that they are each battling a circumstance that neither asked for. They are both prisoners of their bodies, but only one of them knows it. In his thrilling feature debut New Life, director John Rosman explores the fears and human resilience that often come with unexpected physical change.
This notion of uncontrollable change is captured in ways that are both horrific and sombrely reflective. In the case of Jessica, her peaceful existence is completely turned upside down. One minute she is camping with her fiancée the next she is enduring a nightmare she cannot seem to wake up from. Racing towards the Canadian border, the only thing that is clear to Jessica is that she needs to keep moving. A crime has occurred, and she knows she is the prime suspect.
Unbeknownst to Jessica, Elsa has been hired to track her down. Working for a covert intelligence organization, Elsa is the fixer that government agencies and corporate clients bring in when they need to find someone who does not want to be found. Although the best at what she does, she is quietly dealing with a recent medical diagnosis that will forever change her life moving forward.
Initially left in the dark as to why it is so important that she stops Jessica before she reaches the border, Elsa soon realizes that any failure could have devasting global impact. Instead of merely using both women’s ailments as an automatic death sentence, like so many filmmakers tend to do, Rosman offers a refreshingly nuanced take on familiar tropes. It slowly becomes clear that this is not so much a film about looming death, but rather learning to live life to the fullest regardless of one’s disabilities. As Elsa defiantly tells her superior at one point “I have a disease not a death wish.”
By encasing his message within engaging genre tropes, Rosman manages to inject plenty of suspense into his character driven tale. While there are some moments that will have viewers thinking about a classic Danny Boyle film, New Life never exploits its horror moments. Rosman’s economical use of chills helps to subvert one’s expectations. It is not Elsa who proves to be the greatest threat in the film, but rather human kindness.
One feels for those who extend hospitality to Jessica, unknowingly sealing their fate, partly because they are the few rays of light in the perpetual cloud that hangs over her. It also helps that Rosman’s tight script does not waste any moments. He ensures that the side characters the women interact with feel well-rounded even if they are given limited screentime. Couple this with the wonderful performances by both Walger and Erin, each bring rich textures to their respective roles, and you have a character study that rings true even when playing up the sensational aspects of the genre.
A stirring debut that manages to achieve a lot with its modest approach, Rosman’s film lives up to its title as it breathes new life into a well-established genre.
New Life screens again at Fantasia Fest on August 9 at 2:30 PM.