Monday, November 2, 2020

England's Not So Funny Home Video


Ever since Heather Donohue let her final nasal buildup drop into our souls in 1999, found footage has almost exclusively been associated with horror. Sure, the oddball Project X or Chronicle has occasionally come along to take the style into other genres, but for the most part, shaky cam and "DID YOU SEE THAT?!" dialogue on repeat has been reserved for our kinds of movies.

This makes Exhibit A such an oddball film. Its cover art clearly feels like it belongs next to your Paranormal Activitys and CrowsNests, but the final product is far more akin to Michael Haneke's The Seventh Continent. Perhaps its lack of easy classification is why I never heard of this 2007 gem until now.

Quick Plot: Meet the Kings, a middle class British family ready to test out their newest toy: a user-friendly handheld video camera. Dad Andy is a jovial salesman eager to document some family fun, while teenage daughter Judith uses it as a chance to get a closer look at her beautiful sunbathing neighbor. 

Much of Exhibit A unrolls like a simple compilation family film, but there's a sense of immense impending dread that makes you hold your breath for a good portion of its running time. As Andy and mom Sheila start the process of buying a new home and adding a pool to up the selling value of their own, it becomes all too clear that things are not quite what they seem, at least in Andy's professional life. 

Written and directed by Dom Rotheroe (with a story credit for Darren Bender and much of the filming done by the actual cast), Exhibit A is ferociously good, hard-to-categorize film that will leave you feeling more disturbed than a good deal of what passes for straight horror. We know it's leading somewhere dark, but it's the constant squirming sadness of watching a seemingly normal family fall apart that makes the entire 85 minute run time feel interminable. 

As Andy, Bradley Cole plays a man who lives to be the jovial center of fun. When life makes that impossible, he simply can't handle it, and his spirited, long-suffering wife is justifiably past the point of understanding. When their fighting erupts into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? depths of long-simmering hate, we as the audience want to crawl under the Kings' kitchen table and rock ourselves back and forth. 

This is a powerful, disturbing, and incredibly well-made film. I'll likely never want to watch it again, but that won't stop me from recommending it to anyone up for its darkness.

High Points
It's one thing to watch a violent man go crazy and hurt his family, but it's a whole deeper conflict when said man clearly does love them. The fact that Andy, upon discovering a window in Judith's secret sexuality, wants to enthusiastically support her makes it even clearer that Exhibit A is about people, not shocks. This man is not evil; he's just incredibly unstable, and in the end, this story is all the more sad and affecting for it

Low Points
The only negative I have for this film comes in its marketing, which clearly positions it in such a way that most viewers will inevitably sit down expecting a very different style of film

Lessons Learned
You can't disturb the top soil when it's raining!

Girls prefer it if you're not quite so obvious

If you can't talk, you can't sell

Random Spoiler Tie with What Keeps You Alive
Much has been written about the awful "kill your gays" trend that seems to so often target lesbians in television and film. Exhibit A and What Keeps You Alive have very little in common as movies (aside from both being incredibly good and high recommendations from me), but it's fascinating that both end on the exact same note: our heroine, who happens to be a queer woman, letting out the smallest gasp of air to leave the audience with hope that she will live. In both cases, it's a moment loaded with heft because we certainly know she'll have a hard path forward, but still, for all of the dead supporting LGBTQ+ characters we find in our genre stories, there's something to be thankful for in these two cases

Exhibit A is not a film I'll want to revisit any time soon (if ever), but I'd also shout from the virtual rafters that those with a strong stomach looking for a heavy, disturbing, important hard-to-classify genre film give it a chance. I'm shocked that I'd never heard of it until recently, when it should be a title to regularly show up on those constant "best found footage film" listicles the internet seems to love. It's streaming now on Prime and deserves your eyeballs when they're ready.

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