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Make-Out with Violence
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by Jay Seaver

"Making out like a bandit."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: "Make-Out with Violence" isn't quite so good as "Let the Right One In", but that's the film it brings to my mind. Both take horror-movie tropes and twist them into service of a strange story of young love, and have a young boy at the center. "Make-Out" goes with zombies instead of vampires, and rather than a Swedish winter focuses on the summer after high school graduation in the American suburbs. The critical similarity is that both movies take a genre that is extremely played-out, tie it to a story where I believe in every one of the characters, and still leave me wondering what is going to happen next because it seems fresh and new.

Wendy (Shellie Marie Shartzer) is missing, and has been long enough for her family to bury an empty casket hoping to find closure. Among those attending the funeral the Darling brothers - Patrick (Eric Lehning) and Carol (Cody DeVos) are twins who went to school with her, and she frequently baby-sat for Beetle (Brett Miller) - as well as her best friend Addy (Leah High), Addy's friend from boarding school Anne Haran (Tia Shearer), Wendy's boyfriend Brian (Josh Duensing), and Rody (Jordan Lehning), another school friend. It's a nice service, but it turns out that Wendy isn't that far away: Beetle finds her strung between two trees in the woods. The brothers bring her back to town, but by the time they get back home, she's showing signs of something resembling life, and they opt to hide her in Rody's empty house.

We're never given any information of how Wendy wound up in her undead state, or whether it is contagious, should she bite someone; we do know that she is too weak to walk. Make-Out with Violence uses its supernatural elements much more for metaphor than for mayhem, and as obvious as that metaphor is, it works. Patrick and Carol can't properly mourn her and move on because she's not gone to them, and when Carol does, it feels a little improper. The filmmakers described it as more "magic realism" than horror, and I suppose that works; though it's got the same basic plot as Deadgirl (teenage boys keep zombified girl for themselves), Wendy being undead has a tangential, amplifying effect on the teen drama on more than a plot-driving one.

Much of Make-Out with Violence is teen drama, with Patrick having a long-standing crush on Wendy, Carol feeling similarly about Addy, Anne Haran finding Carol more attractive the more her friend ignores him, and Rody bitter and off doing who knows what. The kids live in a community that is wealthy enough that they don't have to spend the summer between high school and college working to save money for school, so that leaves plenty of time for the soapy stuff. It's fortunately not nearly as melodramatic as it's often portrayed on television, since the filmmakers strike a nice balance between these kids knowing they'll be uprooting themselves in a few months and wanting to pull closer together after their loss. Besides, the Carol/Addy/Anne Haran triangle is pretty low-intensity: Carol is kind of out of step with the rest of the world, with his attempts to build himself up in Addy's eyes playing almost as parody; Addy is kind of oblivious, and Anne Haran isn't plotting so much as willing to take opportunities that may arise.

The cast does pretty nice work; they come across as genuine, believable teenagers able to express a variety of emotions without overacting or falling into being "the ______ one". Not bad, for a situation where most of the cast is also part of the creative team - "The Deagol Brothers" is a collective pseudonym - and thus could have easily pulled the a scene one way or another or refused to budge from a bad decision. Instead, they create a consistent tone, with plenty of room for variation - Eric Lehning becoming more single-minded in his obsession as Patrick; Cody DeVos making Carol a bit of a goofball who is more grounded than he first appears; Leah High showing Addy trying to demonstrate she's above everything.

They make some interesting decisions in their storytelling, too. The story is narrated by Beetle, which gives it an air of innocence, with the lovesick teens often seeming just as confusing and nonsensical as the girl who won't fully die. Jordan Lehning's score and songs add an otherworldly tone to everything (and I do mean everything - it's pretty close to wall to wall), pumping up the feeling of alienation. They play a great deal of the movie for laughs, though they always stop just short of making things feel silly.

It's an impressive balancing act. Looking back upon the film, I see that it is actually a much more conventional story, at the core, than it first appears, even with the zombie girl included. It manages to feel like it's something unlike anything one's seen before while you're watching it, and the uncertainty it creates is a wonderful thing.

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originally posted: 04/14/09 21:47:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2009 series, click here.

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USA
  27-Aug-2010 (NR)
  DVD: 26-Oct-2010

UK
  N/A

Australia
  27-Aug-2010
  DVD: 26-Oct-2010




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