Sometimes escape is necessary.
Whether it be from the doldrums of the everyday or a deliberate dodging of the authorities which dog us in the aftermath of a mistake, the natural instinct to retreat and regroup is not only imperative but also innate. For it is in these acts of retirement that human beings can re-discover and re-affirm what truly drives them. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s second feature, Spring, revolves around such a retreat, as their seemingly unremarkable protagonist, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), jets off to Italy in order leave behind what may be the worst turn of events his young life has even seen. Though through this withdrawal, Evan finds not only the girl who may be the love of his life, but also a newfound respect for the world around him. Arguably the greatest quarter-life crisis story conceived since Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Benson & Moorehead’s second motion picture is a stirring, life-affirming work of idiosyncratic art.
Oh yeah…it’s also a horror film.
Evan has seen better days. His mother just died from cancer. A crackhead just attacked him in a bar. His boss just fired him. And the cops are looking to press charges for the way he defended himself. Even the girl he calls over for a pity fuck can’t seem to take five from giving him grief to allow the kid to feel anything besides pain. So Evan does what any well-off white boy would do — books the next flight out of the country to anywhere a plane will take him. After arriving in Italy, Evan meets up with a couple of British backpackers who want to do nothing more than drink themselves into oblivion while chasing the local birds. It’s not entirely what the kid imagined he’d be doing when he smashed that bottle over a basehead’s dome last Friday, but it can’t be any worse than getting stoned and kicking it again with Tommy (Jeremy Gardner of The Battery), his best bud back home.
Then he spots Louise (Nadia Hilker) sitting in the square of the small Italian villa where he’s staying and is instantly smitten. And why wouldn’t he be? She’s absolutely gorgeous and, upon approaching her in a bar, reveals herself to be a woman shrouded in a veil of self-made mystery. She says she doesn’t date, and even after he gets to agree to share a bottle of wine with him, she plays aloof, wanting to know everything about him while keeping details about her background just this side of vague. Louise could easily fall into the category of the MPDG (“Manic Pixie Dream Girl”), but Hilker keeps the secretiveness feeling like it has a motive beyond mere flirtatiousness or bi-polar boy fantasy.
Divulging the reason behind the girl’s vagaries would be giving away part of the fun of watching Spring unfold. There’s a mystery that lies at the heart of the movie that is part its overall point. Yet once said clandestine details are revealed, the picture remolds into an entirely new form. One of the greatest attributes of Benson and Moorhead’s movie is the fact that it refuses to take the obvious path other lesser filmmakers would think to travel. This has become the defining attribute of the young directing team’s output thus far – a negation of the ordinary. Both Spring and their first film play with genre tropes and evoke past classics (with Resolution, it was “cabin in the woods” films like Evil Dead; here it’s American Werewolf and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession). However, they hit on these familiar touchstones in order to smuggle in ambitious, grandiose ideas about love and existence; a trojan horse style of filmmaking that is evocative and, best of all, totally unpredictable.
Spring is, in nearly every technical department, a giant leap forward for Benson and Moorhead. Moorhead’s photography is lush and gorgeous, his camera drinking in the sunbathed Italian locale. Where Resolution is contained and claustrophobic, Spring opens the directors’ vision up to a level that feels impossible on their meager budget. As the film progresses, the set ups continue to grow and the movements become more erratic and spontaneous feeling. There’s a sense of experimentation with the form that echoes Evan’s journey of self-discovery, as you can practically feel Benson and Moorhead getting completely comfortable behind the camera. This goes double for Michael Felker’s editing, which speeds the film up and slows it down at just the right moments (a slow-mo jaunt through the village quad becomes hallucinatory in it loveliness). It’s not often you get to watch artists mature as seconds on their motion picure tick by, but Spring is one of those truly rare treats.
It almost feels reductive to label Spring a horror movie. While there are “creature feature” elements present and a foreboding sense of dread and unease injected into many of the movie’s lush, redolent frames, the picture is ultimately a love story. Spring is swooningly romantic, to the point that the terror film elements pale in comparison. The horrific moments act as a means to an end; a necessary component for Benson and Moorhead to reach their ultimate thesis. And once they do start firing on all cylinders in the film’s philosophy-heavy final third, the minor clunkiness of the horror is easily forgivable. Spring is a film that is fueled almost entirely by pure ambition, and those willing to give themselves over to this heart-swelling treatise will be handsomely rewarded.
None of this would work at all, of course, were it not for the film’s two leads. Like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy before them, Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker craft a young couple that you want to root for. There’s a genuine sense of love shared between the two actors, as their teasing gives way to puppy love before blossoming into full-blown romance. Hilker especially is a joy to watch, as the actress pokes and prods Pucci, bringing out levels of depth in the actor that I didn’t know existed before. Pucci has always been an interesting talent, yet hasn’t really found a role to fit his boyish vibrancy since starring in Mike Mills’ Thumbsucker. As Evan, he’s putting in impressive work, reminding you that he once held his own against a titan like Tilda Swinton. But beyond sharing genuine chemistry together, the two are also funny as hell, unafraid to verbally joust and play off of one another with ace timing. Its been too long since we’ve had a screen couple this good.
There will be some who are turned off by the somewhat sentimental tone the final act of the film takes and I honestly don’t know what to say to those folks. By eschewing a traditional horror narrative in favor of opting to make a personal statement about a particular phase of life everyone faces, Spring becomes an animal unto itself; a species of Benson and Moorhead’s own grand design. Much like Zulawski’s Possession, the two young directors are using genre in order to comment on the development of one particular relationship. Only instead of stewing on the decline of love in the face of infidelity, Spring chooses to focus on the never-ending well of hope that springs at a love affair’s inception. The end result is a beautiful, bold piece of art that sends you out of the theater with an aching heart and a swimming head — the inexorable current of young passion bound to float you for some time in the near future. In short, Spring is delightful.