“Without” was screened last weekend as part of Outfest 2011 in Los Angeles and Sound Unseen International Duluth in June.
It seems that writers, directors and actors can be taught the craft of making movies, but the ever-present, assured hand of a born filmmaker is rare, and simply exists in a person. In “Without,” the debut feature from editor/writer/director Mark Jackson, this is evident from the opening scene. Jackson’s lead actress, Joslyn Jensen, is on a ferry, staring off into the distance, expressionless, before turning her attention to her phone. We will come to realize this phone is of utmost importance to this character, but not until it’s absolutely necessary. We’re never tipped off too early in “Without.” This is a filmmaker who clearly knows how to disseminate information in a way that keeps the viewer at attention.
Watch this film closely, and you will be rewarded. Its deceptively simple narrative is but a conduit to a complex, fractured character study. For such a quiet, relatively low-key film, it’s incredibly visceral. You feel what this character is going through every step of the way, be it frustration, sexual longing, confusion, anxiety, fear or sadness.
We follow 19 year-old Joslyn (this is the character’s name as well) as she arrives on an island (the film, which has a wonderful sense of place, was shot on Whidbey Island in Washington) and is driven to a house by a friendly, curious guy who’s very interested in knowing her better. She politely shrugs off his advances, and arrives at her destination. What tends to be an annoying trend in indie cinema — scenes of people in cars driving — is packed full of character development here. So again, pay attention, as there’s no filler in this tightly scripted and cut film. Joslyn has been hired to care for a wheelchair-bound old man (Ron Carrier) in a vegetative state while his family goes on vacation.
Once the family shows her the dos and donts of the house — which are the height of upper-miiddle-class anal-retentive absurdity (600 channels on the TV, no knives in the dishwasher, etc) and so detailed that they list them off and call it “The Bible” — Joslyn is alone with the old man and quickly descends into boredom and routine. It’s when Joslyn is left alone with her duties and thoughts that we see her cute facade wash away. Pieces of scenes seem as though they’ve been left out, all the better to orient, or disorient you, in the mind of the lead character.
Lead Joslyn Jensen nails her characterization. She understands this girl, and consistently shows with her performance a sense for the mind of a young woman who is going through some serious shit, confused and lost. Her decisions make sense, even when they shouldn’t, because we understand her. Her sexuality becomes an outlet for her frustrations and sadness. The lazy film critic adjective for this kind of performance is “brave.” Forget that, this is confidence and talent, and it’s a pleasure to watch.
The family is broadly sketched and a tad cliched, but still realistic. It appears that Jackson is poking fun at their existence and worries throughout the film, and this is confirmed by the final scene, when the family returns, and it’s unfortunately where the director takes a misstep. The tone of the film is pretty serious throughout, as is the plight of the lead character, but this scene plays rather goofy, and the consequences of the actions we’ve witnessed throughout the entire film are not entirely determined. It’s the only section of the film where the tone feels wrong.
Regardless, though, “Without” is exactly the kind of film that excites us about modern American independent cinema. Most refreshingly, it doesn’t seem to follow any innate trends at the moment, instead Jackson and co. told the story they wanted to tell, how they wanted to tell it. It’s a story that could have been told many different ways, but the one taken here feels right. There’s a lot of promise in the people who made it, and we look forward to their next projects. [B+]