Written by Justin Benson and directed by Benson and Aaron Moorhead (who worked together on the award-winning Resolution), Spring is an intelligent and slyly impacting romantic drama/monster horror hybrid with genuine sweetness and charm to match the often tense, unnerving atmosphere. Skilfully filmed in stunning Italian locations, and with likeable characters at the core of the story, this is a touching genre-transcending work that feels like something wholly unique. Spring premiered in the Midnight Madness section at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, and Benson and Moorhead were acknowledged as Directors to Watch at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The film has now been selected for the Freak Me Out sidebar section at the Sydney Film Festival and comes highly recommended.
Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) is a Californian, an everyman nice guy who been struck by a recent series of bad luck. We learn that he had left behind college to care for his cancer-stricken mother, and has been working as a sou-chef at the local dive bar. When his mother passes, he goes on a bender with his friend and finds himself not only hunted by a local thug following an altercation, but out of a job. He makes a quick decision – to set off on a backpacking trip to the Italian Adriatic Coast and leave behind his problems. He meets up with a couple of British guys, and lives on a whim and prayer. It is when he meets Louise (Nadia Hilker), a knockout genetics student who is both flirtatious and forward and mysteriously elusive, that he realises he has something to live for. He lands some work as a farmer, and starts to see Louise seriously. But, there is something different about Louise – an unpredictable physiological condition she is struggling to control that could threaten not only their relationship, but also the locals.
This starts out as a bit of a white male fantasy – a misguided youth seeks a reset in Europe, jumps between hostels and bars in the hopes of picking up a European beauty. Then these familiar trappings collide with throwback elements of the creature-feature, and while things get creepy quickly it is the underlying romanticism and sweetness that surprised me the most. This is a monster film that is more about the monster than the victims and a romantic connection that is strong enough to hold the film together all on its own.
Think of Spring as a throwback to An American Werewolf in London – even the playful sense of humour resembles John Landis – with a touch of Before Sunrise. This comparison has been used before me, but seriously it sums up the film perfectly. Often we just accompany the pair as they stroll around the streets, and observe them as they get a feel for one another. The chemistry is apparent, and while Evan brings his best suave swagger act, Louise enjoys throwing his attempts to impress back in his face. We come to understand why she has an answer to almost everything. We care about Evan, because he seems to be a decent guy who has had a tough break, and Louise, with her affliction, certainly earns our sympathy. The mythology surrounding her ever-changing form – which is as unpredictable for her as for the audience – is given quite a lot of attention and Benson and Moorhead have some nifty ideas and utilise some impressive effects.
Set in the beautiful, picturesque regions of coastal Italy – the area is comprised of labyrinthine cobblestone alleyways, castle walls, silent pebble beaches and fertile farmlands – I admire the work of the location scouts. I am assuming Benson and Moorhead can also take credit for this, because they are involved in almost everything else. There is a sinister atmosphere constantly building, and we can see disturbances in the forces of nature. I enjoy films that explore the darker side of Europe, while never forgetting the incredible beauty.
Even as things take some bizrre turns – and you may ask why Louise makes so many compromises for ‘this guy’ – the attractive pair sell it. Pucci (Thumbsucker and Evil Dead) and Hilker (a German newcomer who I have never heard of, and now won’t forget) are very good, and share a large majority of the screen time. Their effortless chemistry is influential on the success of this film.
Spring’s concoction is not going to be for everyone, and I suspect some will take issue with the ending, but I thought this sensitively directed and smartly written film really commits to its genre-mash and manages to escalate the stakes and build more scale than you’d expect.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Writer(s): Justin Benson
Starring: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker
Runtime: 109 minutes
Remaining SFF Screening Dates: Sat 13 June 8.30pm (Dendy Newtown)