By: Jolie Featherstone
Red Rover is a story for anyone who has felt unseen, unloved, and unworthy in a world where artifice and branding are systemically rewarded.
Red Rover eases us into the life of Damon, played exquisitely by Kristian Bruun (who recently slayed audiences with his hilarious performance in Ready or Not). Damon is a down-on-his-luck, thirtysomething geologist. He lives in the basement of the house he bought with his now ex-girlfriend (who lives upstairs with her new bronzed, Australian boy toy). Damon is conscientious and dependable. He keeps tabs on whether the garbage is put out correctly. He creates insightful reports at work, only to have them shrugged off by his money-hungry boss. To pass the time, he diligently scours the beach with his trusty metal detector looking for unknown treasure. Indeed, his solitary beach sojourns are the only time that Damon is beholden to no one but himself. That is until he is unwittingly accosted by Phoebe (Cara Gee of Call of the Wild and TV’s The Expanse). Phoebe is an uninhibited free-spirit. She is everything that Damon does not allow himself to be. She introduces Damon to a contest that would allow him the chance to be selected for a mission to Mars. Hesitant at first, Damon becomes intrigued by the idea. The pair strike up a friendship and Phoebe takes on the task of preparing Damon to compete for his chance to go to the red planet.
Similar to Don McKellar’s Last Night and Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, Shane Belcourt’s Red Rover takes a decidedly understated and human approach to a larger-than-life subject. The film was inspired by the real-life “Mars One” recruitment contest in 2012. A different filmmaker inspired by the same idea might have made a louder film about high-stakes space exploration, including a dramatic love affair and an assaulting score for good measure. Instead, we meet our leading man after he’s experienced his first love and first heartbreak. He’s gone from home ownership to being relegated to living in a basement with some painfully awkward scenarios with his girlfriend-turned-housemate and her judgmental new boyfriend. He’s worked in a job long enough to be highly competent, only to be met with barriers at every turn. For Torontonians watching the film, a feeling of familiarity will take hold and not simply because of the setting. The film is imbued with a Torontonian ethos in a similar way as Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz: lost souls looking for meaning, inspiration, and self-acceptance.
Having said that, Red Rover is emotionally relevant beyond that scope. Life has dealt Damon and Phoebe a few blows. Damon has shrunk away from himself, while Phoebe flings herself into new experiences, seemingly without much forethought. Both of them have been shaken by loss and both are caught in the riptide of early adulthood. They are beginning to grapple with life’s peaks and valleys. They are beginning the, sometimes painful, process of molting from uncertain youth into a more self-assured adulthood.
As Damon, Kristian Bruun’s power as the emotional core of the film cannot be overstated. Damon is self-aware, and Bruun brings a magnetism to the role that keeps us invested in Damon’s every move. Invested in watching his journey with the contest unfold, but even more so for the brief moments where Damon’s true self peeks through the cracks of his defensive exterior. Those who enjoyed Bruun’s sharp comedic timing in Ready or Not, Orphan Black, and Murdoch Mysteries will recognize his charm in this role as well.
Phoebe is written close to the “manic pixie dream girl” line. However, Cara Gee’s whole-hearted portrayal of the enigmatic Phoebe is compassionate and allows us to appreciate Phoebe as an individual who is also wrestling with her own pain and sense of loss while trying to move forward. She can be impulsive, but she genuinely cares about Damon and his journey. There are full and tender moments between Damon and Phoebe thanks to Gee and Bruun’s honest performances. Moments wherein they sort-of-on-purpose miss each other’s glances; secretly wanting to hold each other’s gaze but not wanting to come off as too obvious, or heavy, to the other. Or when Phoebe tells Damon to hang on to her while she attempts to do a pull-up. When it inevitably does not work, Damon says, “Told you it wouldn’t work.” Phoebe looks at him with a smile and softly says, “I thought it would.” The film feels longer than its 100 minutes. The pacing and writing could be picked up in certain areas to make the film move at a more active pace. However, watching Damon and Phoebe coax each other out into the proverbial sunlight is comforting and engaging.
Ultimately, Red Rover reminds us that we don’t need a grand contest or a mission to Mars to reach new heights within ourselves or in our lives. We need only to give ourselves permission.
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Jolie Featherstone: @TOFilmFiles