EIFF Movie Review: LIFE AFTER BETH

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REVIEW: LIFE AFTER BETH / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: JEFF BAENA / SCREENPLAY: JEFF BAENA / STARRING: DANE DEHAAN, AUBREY PLAZA, JOHN C. REILLY, MOLLY SHANNON, CHERYL HINES, PAUL REISER, MATTHEW GRAY GUBLER / UK RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 3RD

After his recently deceased girlfriend Beth comes back from the dead, Zach is initially overjoyed that he’s been given a second chance with her. But as her zombie-like characteristics start to take over, he begins to question how much of her true self there is left, and if this means he should do something about it.

Nobody would deny that zombies are the “in” thing these days. But while the popularity of shambling flesheaters continues unabated, attempts are continuing to be made to infuse the undead with a degree of humanity. It’s nothing new – even in Romero’s films the zombies were shown to be capable of learning – but nowadays they’re even allowed to express emotion. Gaining increasing traction is the rom-zom-com (romantic comedy with zombies), which began with Shaun of the Dead and continued with Romeo and Juliet riff Warm Bodies. Life After Beth is the latest in this bizarre fusion of genres.

As Zach, Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) mixes bereavement and hopefulness, wanting to believe he and Beth truly have a future despite developing circumstances indicating its increasing unlikelihood, and he has fantastic chemistry with Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) in the eponymous role. Although Beth could have easily come off as psychotic or pathetic, Plaza navigates her tempest of emotions with such precision that she never feels unworthy of your sympathy, even when smashing car windows, punching through walls, or appearing splattered with the blood of some anonymous guy she’s just eaten.

Plaza has always excelled at dripping deadpan sarcasm with nothing more than a facial expression, and such blank looks form the basis of Beth’s emotional instability in-between her lurches from one mood extreme to another (tempered only by, somewhat incongruously, smooth jazz). Beth is initially unaware she was actually dead, the relevant memories a blur within her mind and, in an unspoken callback to Dawn of the Dead, keeps returning to the state of reality she was in around the time of her death, while the constant confusion adds to her frustration with nobody telling her exactly what’s going on.

Right from the beginning and throughout, the film deals with the aftermath of losing someone and the toll it takes on those left behind. Some touching and unforced moments include Beth’s family using her return to alleviate the regrets tormenting them since her funeral, with Zach taking the opportunity to tell her everything he wished he had when she was alive, or her mum taking as many photos of her as possible after previously lamenting how few she had.

Even though the world slowly goes to hell in the usual way through background events and visual details, the story remains a personal one with its focus on the emotional content. While some people’s behaviour might seem unfair or illogical, nobody is judged for their actions as there are no rules for how people are supposed to feel in a situation like this. Through all this, the movie still finds time to play with expected genre conventions (the repeated mention of a minor character being from Haiti doesn’t have the significance you’d presume) and include a great deal of perfectly timed physical comedy, mostly courtsey of Plaza’s gradually increasing zombie behaviour.

Romantic comedies are more often than not tales of love lost and then found (and possibly lost again), and Life After Beth meets all the required story beats (including a prospective new girlfriend in the shape of Anna Kendrick) while seamlessly fusing them with the horror comedy theme without seeming trite or contrived. A difficult balance to strike but one that debuting director Jeff Baena manages to maintain.

Expected Rating: 6 out of 10

Actual Rating:

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