“New Life,” which had its world premiere last night at Fantasia, starts with an arresting set of images: a woman with blood on her face, making her way through a quiet neighborhood. Her name is Jessie (played by Hayley Erin), and she is in a desperate hurry from something. We then get a sense of who is chasing her: an older woman named Elsa (Sonya Walger). In the first few scenes we spend with her, Elsa takes medication with a gun placed nearby, listening to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Her body has been showing early signs of ALS. She speaks with a woman over Zoom who tells her about how the experience is like being trapped in one’s own body. It’s also a way to discover the strength of the human spirit. It’s a moving passage and an important sentiment. But why are we watching it in a chase movie?
The lean (but never mean) 80-minute film adds more oddness with its casting, which is pertinent but unspoken. The people at the top secret communications quarters surrounded by computers, searching for Jessie … they look very … ordinary. Age, build, hairstyle, etc. Not your movie-conventional mission control by any means. But “New Life” proceeds. It pays off so well.
Though it has two character arcs built of mysterious immediacy, “New Life” is primarily driven by emotions and our observations of Elsa and Jessie’s hours. Elsa follows clues of Jessie’s latest appearances, while struggling with mobility. Meanwhile, Jessie meets a couple of farmers who give her breakfast and help drive her farther north. We keep waiting for a snag on her journey to get away, a type of reinvention. Maybe, sometimes, there are just kind people out there.
At just the right breaking point, Rosman’s story throws in its horror without ditching its essential perspective on humanity, its finger on America’s flagging pulse, or its gangbusters pacing. It’s a slight storytelling cheat in that we learn more about what’s going on than Jessie knows, but it makes the movie more horrifying and engaging for us as we embrace Jessie and feel for her. Placing “ordinary people” into this unsuspecting thriller proves to be just one of the thoughtful, bold ways that Rosman sucks us into his story and its supposedly out-there stakes. Everything works in turn—the beats that follow are appropriately frightening, morally complicated, and human. As the film’s initial scope of Jessie and Elsa continues to zoom out, we suddenly all know the traumatic horror of “New Life” all too well. And we feel for our hero to a depth that action-thrillers have never known. What a delight, what a discovery.