Monday, July 3, 2017

America's Next Top Parasite

There was a time in my life when I could tell you everything you never wanted to know about America's Next Top Model. Then Tyra Banks went to the Harvard Business School and decided to make a "college" season which actually just convinced 14 young women to drop out of school to be on an overproduced reality show, teasing them with "scholarship funds" only to take all of it away from everyone except for the winner (who happened to be already wealthy). 

It was the last straw in a long, complicated relationship. And all this is really just a preamble to say that today's feature, Viral, stars an a former contestant. 

Quick Plot: Brainy Emma and her older, mildly rebellious sister Stacey (ANTM's Analeigh Tipton) have just moved to a new Californian town in a suburban development. Their dad (the always welcome Michael Kelly) teaches high school biology, while their mother seems to be maintaining some mysterious distance on business trips. Emma balances schoolwork with a chaste crush on boy next door Evan, while Stacey engages in a more physical relationship with skater boy CJ (played by something called Machine Gun Kelly, which I don't think is any relation to aforementioned Michael Kelly). 

Also, there's a parasitic outbreak and the country is going to hell.
Directed by the team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (they of Catfish and the underrated Paranormal Activity 3 & 4), Viral tells a story we've seen many times from a fresh angle. Normally, I'm the last person to ask for more teenagers in horror, but much like the wonderfully underseen Into the Forest, Viral understands the key to centering your film on young characters is to make them real, sympathetic, and specific.

We don't need too much exposition to understand Emma and Stacey. They come from caring, if distracted parents. Emma follows the rules, occasionally making exceptions if it means helping her older sister. With her blue highlights and eye rolls, Stacey is a wannabe bad girl still good enough to respect most of her dad's requests, while also helping to edge Emma just far enough over to the dark side to ensure she has fun. 

Such a dynamic would be healthy and fine if, you know, there wasn't a highly contagious outbreak of worm things that essentially turn their hosts into hungry zombies. 

Viral does a nice job in balancing its gross-out horror with the very grounded reality of its characters. While it may be frustrating to watch our leads ignore quarantine rules for a nearby keg party, it's also easy to understand why these young women wouldn't put much stock in government warnings. In the last ten years, we've been through swine flu, ebola, and Legionnaire's disease "outbreaks" that were never nearly as dangerous or widespread as the panic-inducing media wanted us to believe. Even an honors student would rather listen to her crush than an anchorman. 

The lack of initial action may be a turnoff for some viewers, but it felt true to the characters for me. Leads Sofia Black-D'Elia and Tipton convey a real connection as sisters, and it helps to drive the film once infection becomes extremely close to home. There's nothing revolutionary about the story or style, but Joost and Schulman know how to tell a story like this in a way that the audience cares. Along the way, they manage to pack in some decently gross parasitic attacks and effectively tense chase scenes. Solidly done all around. 

High Points
I always appreciate when a movie understands just how large or small its scope should be. Viral doesn't aim to tell the end of the world; it simply takes a pair of teenagers and watches the start of it through their limited viewpoint. All the information we know comes from the snippets of news stories they see, so we never have an edge over them in terms of understanding the full nature of the infection or state of the world. It helps to keep the tension exactly where it should be: on this very small, very specific collection of characters

Low Points
I've excused it because the movie overcomes it, but you know, there's not much new here
Lessons learned
On the hierarchy of supplies included in an emergency kit, band-aids are pretty lame

The trick to not vomiting when dissecting a frog is to chew gum

Doing your homework in sweats when school is canceled is pretty uncool

Viral isn't the most memorable of the parasitic apocalyptic subgenre, but it's a solidly made little film that moves well in its under-90 minute running length. If you're looking for a breezy way to kill some time, it's certainly one of the better of the new offerings currently streaming on Netflix.

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