There’s a good reason why many people are sick of the glut of found footage horror films currently crowding the world of film: even more so than the average film, a large number of them simply aren’t very good, in any conventional sense. It’s very much reminiscent of the early days of American punk rock - when Minor Threat would end their sets by saying, “Okay, you’ve seen us, now go home and start your own band!” It was very inspiring, and it certainly inspired thousand of kids to strap on instruments they didn’t really know how to play and give it a go. The vast majority of those bands were not terribly good. Found footage is the current punk rock of the film world; the good ones make anybody think they have the chops to shoot a film. And on a purely technical level, that’s true. The tools are now out there for basically anybody with enough drive who wants to make a film, to make one. This does not mean that they should. Or, perhaps more accurately, if they do, this does not mean they should unleash it upon the rest of the world.
I have never seen any other films by writer/director James Cullen Bressack. He has a number of fans; many sharp, intelligent critics seem quite taken with his work. The man has a work ethic that would put Joe Swanberg to shame: in the past five years alone he’s written, directed, and produced a half-dozen short films, five feature-length films, twenty episodes of an online review show, with another half-dozen more projects currently in pre-production. He seems firmly ensconced in the Roger Corman ideology of moviemaking: shoot it fast, shoot it cheap, and on to the next one. This is an admirable perspective - it puts a premium on elbow grease, bearing down, and actually doing the hard work of making a film.
It gives me no joy (in any sense of the word - joy is not a word I can associate with the watching of this movie) to report that To Jennifer is the worst film I have seen this year, a misfire of colossal proportions; it’s the cinematic equivalent of walking in on someone practicing their junior-high dance moves in front of a mirror. You feel embarrassed, they feel embarrassed, it’s an all-around awkward situation. That is the experience of seeing this film. It feels like watching someone carry around their iphone, imagining what it might be like to make a real movie.
Perhaps that’s because it actually was shot on an iPhone 5? I was wondering why the footage looked subpar, even for found footage standards, until a mirror shot revealed that indeed, it was truly the phone of phones providing the images unfolding in front of me. Oh, Apple; what hath you wrought. Even calling it a “found footage” film seems extreme: “home movie” seem more fitting. Aside from the lead actor Chuck Pappas (essentially dealt an unplayable hand), the rest of the cast appears to be primarily a coterie of family and friends, or possibly friends of the producers. It all seems like a group of buddies got together and decided to make a movie for spring break. This can, on occasion, result in inspired low-budget film-making. There are more than a few recent horror films out there essentially made on a piece of string - they couldn’t even afford a shoestring - that make up for the lack of production value or professional actors with pure chutzpah, creative directing, and inventive imagery and story. To Jennifer has none of those qualities. It has an iphone. An iphone 5. Maybe it’s a 5S? That would be something.
The story, such as it is, concerns Joey, a young man who receives a text message implying that his girlfriend may be cheating on him. (It’s a text from his significant other, whom he hasn’t seen in weeks, telling him to come over and “finish what [he] started last night.”) In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s one of those films where the entire plot could be resolved with a brief phone call. (Even though To Jennifer wants to spring a “twist” on you - but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.) Obviously, the sane thing would be to call your girlfriend and ask what the heck is going on. Oh, if only someone in this movie were sane. Instead, we immediately learn that Joey is Captain Crazypants, because his response is to recruit his cousin Steve, and fly to where his girlfriend is living, filming the whole trip, to catch her with this mysterious other man, and then “expose to the world” what a cheater she is. That is his honest-to-God, for-real-the-plot idea. Woof. So we already know we’re dealing with sociopaths, here.
But BELIEVE YOU ME, THE MOVIE HAS NOT EVEN BEGUN TO SHOW YOU SOCIOPATHIC. First, Joey and Steve are booted from their plane when Joey has a panic attack shortly after takeoff and begins screaming about how the plane is definitely going to crash. Joey is taken to a hospital where he is interrogated, and kept under observation for four days. (This is just insane logic gap #1: why would his seemingly normal buddy Steve also have to stay at the hospital? He’s not under observation! Just leave, Steve! Sadly, this is actually one of the smaller gaps in rationality.) Stuck in a city eight hours away from Jennifer, they impose on Steve’s buddy Martin, who quickly turns out to be almost as sociopathic as Joey. (Steve is not sociopathic. Steve is just an asshole, and dumber than a stump. At least he yells slightly less often than Joey or Martin. Oh, God, the yelling.) Martin and Steve keep trying to convince Joey to go to parties, meet girls…basically, do everything other than the very reason he is traveling in the first place. Eventually, Joey drags them on the road, and they head toward Jennifer’s, pausing briefly for most of the first night to visit a ramshackle motel and allow Martin to pick up a couple of prostitutes. (Don’t ask. It’s so god-forsakenly inexplicable, I’m not sure even Martin really knew why he was doing it.) Eventually, Martin vanishes, and Joey and Steve finish driving to Jennifer’s, where it quickly turns out that Joey is psychotic, he’s killed Martin, and stuffed him in the trunk of the car, and now kills Jennifer’s boyfriend, because, surprise surprise, Joey and Jennifer were not actually dating. Because Joey is crazy. Which is a shock to everyone in this film except for the viewer. And Jennifer. Good ol’ Jennifer seems to have a sensible head on her shoulders.
Hoo boy. I have rarely seen a movie where spending time with the main characters is so actively unpleasant that you begin rooting for them all to be immediately hit by a truck. Every time one of them raised their voice, they did so in such an obnoxiously grating yell, that I actually caught myself shushing the screen at one point, just begging them to shush up. Speaking of every time: approximately 75% of the film is them yelling at one another in this hyper-aggressive caterwauling. It’s excruciating, the way that dentist drills are excruciating. I don’t blame the actors; they were clearly instructed to keep this up. The script presumably had boldface script notes, saying “(Make this sentence DEEPLY unpleasant for everyone to hear)”.
And while we’re discussing the script, this movie commits one of the big no-nos of cinema: it allows for improvisation amongst the actors, without cutting or cleaning up the freewheeling improv. If you’ve ever seen bad improv, especially bad filmed improv scenes, you know what this means: every single line. line. of. of. dialogue. dialogue. gets. gets. repeated. repeated. five. five. times. times. When you have non-professional actors, without improv backgrounds, freestyling their way through a scene, you may want to do it a few times until they nail down what exactly they need to communicate. Because To Jennifer runs a scant 76 minutes, but feels twice as long, mainly due to the open-ended nature of the characters’ interactions. Perhaps if there was some compelling camera work to give the audience something to look at, the shrill, repetitive nature of the dialogue wouldn’t be so obvious and clumsy, but the very strictures of the “home movie” format Bressack has chosen pin him down, preventing anything a normal film might utilize (editing, sound mixing, hell, even color correction) in order to give the movie some momentum and artfulness. Instead, you have a tonally inconsistent, draggy, shrill, numbing, and frankly ugly film (it’s a great iPhone, but a couple of steps below a decent quality grade image for a film).
Looking over the pages of notes I have, I think it may be best just to end it here. I’m not a fan of pulling out the long knives, but this film was not ready for prime time, and should not be treated as such. Given Bressack’s reputation, I’m curious to see something, anything else he’s made, because given the respect he’s earned from some reputable sources, surely he’s got more to offer than this botched student exercise of a film. Steer clear.
(Okay, one more insane logic gap, just because this one is so jaw-droppingly glaring that it needs to be mentioned: at the end of the film, Steve, after having been told to wait in the car while Joey confronts Jennifer in her home, discovers Martin’s body in the trunk - FYI, his honest-to-God response to this shocking discovery? “I’m sorry, bro” - and rushes into the house. All the lights are off, with only the light from the iPhone guiding the way. As he rounds a corner, he flicks a light switch, to no avail; but then rounds the corner, saying “the lights don’t work,” at the exact same time that there has suddenly appeared overhead light entering the frame. I can’t even, with this film.)