Credit: Brainstorm Media
by Fred Barrett Featured Film Genre Views

New Life — John Rosman

May 6, 2024

A tale of desperation and shared fates, of people hanging on to a life that is slipping away from them: two women, Elsa Gray (Sonya Walger) and Jessica Murdock (Hayley Erin), get caught in each other’s orbit when the former is tasked with tracking down the latter. Their connection is a grim one: Elsa is showing early signs of ALS, while Jessica is an unwitting host to a mysterious virus that affects the people she comes in contact with. Both, it is eventually revealed, are pawns in a bigger game of corporate conspiracizing, but the minutiae of the plot is negligible since their interlinked struggles are what first-time writer-director John Rosman’s genre-blending film New Life is most interested in.

The film’s in media res opening — we follow a blood-covered Jessica, clearly on the run from someone, as she gathers things from her home before trying to make her way to the Canadian border — suggests something akin to a paranoia thriller, or perhaps even It Follows-esque horror, but Rosman approaches his lean 80-minute debut much like a drama, a tendency he emphasizes by not only making room for plenty of character moments — Jessica, in particular, comes across a variety of different characters, although each interaction doesn’t illuminate her background as much as it allows others to project their own ideas about her predicament onto her — but also by shaping the genre gestures around the psychology of the main characters.

Elsa worries about her future, about becoming a burden to those closest to her as her disease progresses. Conversely, Jessica’s encounters with strangers literally spell disaster for them as they, one after another, succumb to the virus Jessica exposes them to. At least as far as Elsa is concerned, the film very clearly maps out the path a radical acceptance of her diagnosis will inevitably lead her toward. Its conception of Jessica’s unfortunate circumstances — given her repeated refusal of outside help as well as the harm this causes, it’s hard not to read her ailment as a stand-in for a Cluster B personality disorder or manic depression — is informed by some fairly trite truisms that surround today’s mental health discourse. “(Mental) health issues might not be your fault,” the film seems to say. “But they are your responsibility.”

This line of criticism obviously touches on some complicated questions regarding prevalent notions of mental health as an individual rather than a socio-political matter, and faulting a film for highlighting individual stories over collective ones seems, on its face, rigid and dismissive. However, in light of how the narrative unfolds and the broader implications certain revelations bring with them — not to mention the formal shift that accompanies them — ignoring the broader context in which they grapple with their issues seems like an oversight. Elsa and Jessica are, to paraphrase Gilles Deleuze, trapped in the dreams of others, their own dreams thrashing about in the web of someone else’s desires.

The horror aspects introduced in the second act seek to render this tangle as not only horrifying but deadly — whether the film successfully delivers the goods is another question, one which can be answered no. Outside of illustrating the film’s thematic preoccupations, this turn does little to excite or shock as Rosman falls back on an all-too-familiar bag of tricks to conjure some would-be scares. His handling of the characters’ arcs, while stronger — seeing the women’s stories dovetail during the finale reveals, if nothing else, an impressive vision that’s somewhat lacking from the rest of the film — also betrays New Life‘s confinement to the emotional and thematic spheres of so many of its contemporaries.

DIRECTOR: John Rosman;  CAST: Sonya Walger, Haley Erin, Tony Amendola, Ayanna Berkshire;  DISTRIBUTOR: Brainstorm Media;  IN THEATERS: May 3;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 25 min.