A deadly journey
There are two stories at the heart of John Rosman’s debut feature, both of which feel as if they will inevitably collide on a personal and global scale. On the run, Jess (Hayley Erin) is a young woman desperate to cross the Canadian border, for reasons we are unsure of until she leaves a trail of (dead?) bodies in her wake. Pursuing her is a resourceful agent, Elsa (Sonya Walger), who — after a recent ALS diagnosis — is drawn into something that is as much beyond her control as her own failing body. As the stakes continue to rise and we enter a familiar apocalyptic territory, we watch as the gap between these two women (and humanity’s survival) narrows and narrows before the film’s razor-edged climax.
What sets New Life apart from most films reminding us of the pandemic is Rosman’s background as an Emmy-Award-winning journalist. This isn’t just down to his choices in direction and the film’s documentarian (often kitchen sink vibe), but what initially inspired his approach to the story. In an interview in he was involved with in 2015, Rosman was specifically touched by Summer Whisman who had written a memoir about her life before and after being diagnosed with ALS at the age of 36. Deeply moved by the capacity of acceptance, and the strength of the human spirit, Rosman noted that Summer had “peered into the abyss and in its returning gaze reported back about something deep within us, which is far more profound than misery. It can be found in the joy and wonder of life, even during its darkest hours.”
Summer passed away a year after the interview, but her words and ideas had stayed with Rosman. Obviously, feeling a deep sense of obligation, he went on to seek the advice of Dagmar Munn, another columnist who had also written extensively on living with ALS. Dagmar advised on the script, sharing intimate details of her physical and psychological growth in her own journey with the disease and, as with Summer, helped Rosman understand how such challenges freed her to live a good life in unexpected ways. She also helped with casting and stars in the film.
With all of this in mind, the strengths of Rosman’s film are in character and the quiet moments, his background research only part of the film. Of course, there is no escaping the opening scene, one of which immediately sets up that something awful has happened to Jess and as we follow her, it becomes about the journey itself… one of which we cannot help feel a part of. There is no sun, only a cold light of day as the open landscape beckons; remnants of the past (on an old rusty car in a forest) littering the Pacific Northwest as two (lost) women pass through on the fringes of society. Elsa, dealing with her diagnosis, is in pursuit but deals with her internal struggles and the inevitability of her ‘new life’; Rosman presenting a character with the potential of returning as she continues to peer into the abyss… while the world falls apart around her.
Without revealing too much — as to where the story goes and the horrors it explores — if anything is to be taken away from the film, it should highlight hope and heroism in individuals who challenge adversity. Whether it is ALS or the reality (and conspiracies) of COVID-19, New Life — as with any example of the horror genre — shows how we face and overcome horrific circumstances, “and in that journey, learn a deep truth about what it means to be alive, which can only come through the power of acceptance and hope.” As Rosman’s own journalism so eloquently puts it.