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A precocious boy and his jaded sister use their imaginative powers to escape a confining home-life, save their self-destructive mother from her charmingly manipulative boyfriend, and finally reinvent their world in a mind bending conclusion. Written by
"Half-Life," Jennifer Phang's first feature film is an impressive debut. A blend of family drama, magic realism and sexual exploration.
Set in the rolling hills of Northern California suburbia, "Half-Life" centers around the lives of Saura Wu (Julia Nickson), a mother of two struggling to keep herself together, her teenage daughter Pam (Sanoe Lake), her 10 year old son Timothy (Alexander Agate) and her live-in boyfriend of five weeks Wendell (Ben Redgrave).
We learn that the family patriarch abandoned the trio some time ago. The aftereffects still resonate and are played out in Saura's hurried relationship with the much younger Wendell, Pam's crush on her gay friend Scott (Leonardo Nam) and Timothy's frequent escapes to an alternate reality. The latter provides the film's fantastic animated sequences courtesy of artists Matt Pugnetti, Catherine Tate and Ryan Schiewe, to name a few, which are sure to be compared to Richard Linklater's 2001 "lucid dream" "Waking Life."
The performances in "Half-Life" are strong and evoke the sense of isolation the characters feel, none more so than young Agate's turn as the imaginative Timothy. Kudos to Phang for educing such a solid performance. Nickson and Lake are also note-perfect as the mother/daughter duo who are more alike than they realize, as they both battle to keep their lives in what little order they have left.
The rest of the cast is rounded out nicely by James Eckhouse and Susan Ruttan as the voluntarily ignorant parents of the attention seeking Scott and Lee Marks as Scott's unassuming boyfriend Jonah.
"Half-Life" moves at a methodical pace reminiscent of Shyamalan at his best. Michael S. Patterson's beautiful score expertly complements, as well as haunts, the piece lending it a quiet calm amidst a canvas awash in turmoil.
Cinematographer Aasulv Austad wonderfully captures the grace and charm and contrasting hustle and bustle of the East Bay Area.
Hearkening back to Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" and the works of the late Robert Altman, Phang possesses a touch for creating relatable characters intertwined in multiple story lines. She's definitely one to keep an eye on.
"Half-Life" is a stunning beginning to what looks to be a promising career.
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