When we first meet Anne (Deragh Campbell), she’s in two places at once. Gently cupping a butterfly in her hands, she ushers it onto a young girl’s shoulder as other children look on, mesmerized by her ability to capture the elusive creature. Without warning, the camera cuts from a moment of calm to one of exhilaration — Anne is preparing to jump out of a moving plane for her best friend’s bachelorette party. The two scenes are interwoven to the point where we don’t know where one ends and one begins, like someone trying to piece together formless fragments of distant memories.
It’s a manic introduction to “Anne at 13,000 Ft.,” Canadian director Kazik Radwanski’s portrait of an unsteady woman struggling to navigate her everyday life, and it sets us up for 75 minutes of fits and starts as we are jerked from one episode to the next. While this filmmaking technique is anxiety-inducing and at times frustrating to watch, Campbell’s staggering performance becomes the film’s center of gravity, her captivating sense of chaos and complexity giving the audience emotional motion sickness as her moods shift between extremes.
These opening shots prove to be the high point for Anne — she has an affinity for flying, whether she’s skydiving or observing a winged butterfly. It’s when she comes back down to earth that her difficulties start, though it’s unclear if her ensuing mental turbulence is set off by the jump, or only exacerbated by it. Back on the ground, we watch as Anne struggles with social interactions and puts herself in situations that might be considered risky, especially with older men. At the daycare center where she works, she butts heads with Suzanne (Suzanne Pratley), a senior coworker who chastises her for breaking the center’s rules. While Anne’s concern that she’s being unjustly targeted is sympathetic at times, it’s not altogether clear whether or not Anne’s in the wrong. Later she goes on an online date with a distressingly awkward insurance salesman, gulping down her beer as the scene ends abruptly, leaving the ensuing events up for interpretation.
The film’s ambiguity is carefully crafted, the result of a collaboration between its director and star. Campbell, who improvised much of the dialogue over its two-year workshopping and production period, receives a writing credit alongside Radwanski, who created the role specifically for her. Together, the two generate a highly kinetic character study that refuses to settle on a certain mood or emotional atmosphere. Like John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence,” the duo manage to effortlessly sprinkle bizarre moments of humor into the most disturbing emotional conflicts, showing how it’s possible to experience two opposing emotions at once. It’s no small feat to channel the same energy as someone like Rowlands, but the similarities between the great actor and this up-and-comer are astonishing.
Campbell’s erratic on-screen presence, coupled with Nikolay Michaylov’s relentlessly claustrophobic camerawork, destabilizes things further, keeping us from getting a full picture of Anne’s inner world. The film is shot almost completely in close-up, giving the characters’ often banal actions a larger-than-life quality, as if they can’t be contained within the frame. The camerawork is as dizzying and impulsive as Anne herself, a carnival ride you’re trying desperately to get off. Radwanski unnerves his audience purposefully, however, knowing that while they may be uncomfortable, they can’t look away.
This is the third installment in Radwanski’s trilogy of films that focus on outsiders unable to form meaningful connections with others, following “Tower” (2012), and “How Heavy This Hammer” (2015), which both follow men as their lives become increasingly isolated and dysfunctional. With Anne, the director turns his attention to a female protagonist, reflecting his longstanding fascination with the downfall of female heroines, including the work of Cassavetes and Rowlands, and the collaborations between Elisabeth Moss and Alex Ross Perry.
Campbell, who resembles a young Deborah Kerr (minus the strict sense of composure,) delivers a performance reminiscent of these iconic female antiheroes. Campbell’s vulnerability is her strength as a performer. As she drinks herself into a stupor after delivering a rambling, candid maid of honor speech at the wedding of her best friend Sarah (played by the Canadian singer Dorothea Paas, who provides the film’s bittersweet closing credits song, “Container”), she’s picked up by fellow guest Matt (Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson), who takes her back to his hotel room. Like Rowlands and Barbara Loden’s characters, Anne seems unaware of the harm that could come to her, and we’re surprised when she and Matt start dating — based on the blackout that closes the scene, we assume the outcome will be far worse.
“You’re a weird little girl, you know that,” Matt says to Anne when she shows up to his door unannounced. This infantilization becomes part of Anne’s persona — her hair is messy and leaf-filled, like a child coming home from daycare, and her shy soft-spokenness makes her seem younger than her 27 years. Despite this childlike quality, Anne is unwilling to accept help from her concerned mother (Lawrene Denkers). Her mother walks on eggshells around her daughter, and later we understand why, as Anne spirals into a violent episode — Radwanski doesn’t clue us in on how it started — that sends her storming out the door. Campbell and Denkers create an incredibly relatable mother-daughter chemistry, and their relationship subtly hints at a history of emotional turmoil without spelling out what may have happened in the past.
While she refuses to open up to her mother, Anne is more than eager to seek out help at inconvenient times from Sarah, who works at the daycare center with her. Anne slowly wears away at Sarah’s patience as she discusses her relationship problems in front of the children: “It’s distracting because you can’t be thinking about it while you’re here,” Sarah finally says. “It’s not really fair to me.” Anne’s destructive behavior seems to affect everyone around her, ultimately eroding her last existing support system.
The film builds to an overpowering emotional crescendo and an immensely committed display of volatility from Campbell that’s hard to shake. It’s the explosion we’ve been anticipating, and perhaps one that Anne’s needed the whole time, though we don’t know if it’s helped or harmed her. Radwanski and Campbell leave things open-ended, not relying on traditional framing or narrative structures to tell Anne’s story; it’s a fitting choice for a film about the disorienting nature of being alienated from yourself. We’re only offered glimpses of Anne, a wildly unusual character, without really seeing things through her eyes. Anne returns to skydiving several times throughout the film as she trains to jump unaccompanied. Strangely, these are the only times she appears to be fully lucid and at ease, and we’re left to wonder what it’s like to feel the most grounded when you’re falling from the sky.
Cinema Guild will release “Anne at 13,000 Ft.” in theaters in New York on Friday, September 3 and in Los Angeles on Friday, September 10.
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