OIFF Review: 'American Descent' and 'Subsurface Flow'

American Descent
(Canada, 83 min.)
Dir. Brooks Hunter, Writ. Brooks Hunter, Robert Menzies, Maggie Newton
Starring: Eva Link, Madeline Link, Olivier Suprenant, Caedan Lawrence, Mark Slacke, Rachel Cairns, Katherine Dines, Timothy Paul Coderre.
Found footage strikes again. American Descent, the latest film from Brooks Hunter, director of OIFF 2011 alumnus and 2011 turkey train runner-up Kennyville, makes an admirable stab at mockumentary but falls victim to the same tired clichés and conventions that make found footage one of the most insufferable forms of filmmaking. American Descent, which should really be titled Stupid People: The Movie, is so dumb, dull, and repulsive that a not even cheerleader for local content could love it.

Found footage films only really work if they have some pretense to realism in their story that both justifies and complements the formal gimmick that plays upon audiences’ perceptions of the real. Take The Blair Witch Project, for example, which feels plausible since it’s just a trio of friends exploring a legend in the woods. Even Cloverfield largely works because it keeps the monstrous source of New Year’s Eve terror largely offscreen and uses the point of view cinematography to give viewers a the sense of playing witness to a supernatural disaster. American Descent, however, takes a clichéd story of a treasure hunt and executes it without a frame of plausibility as four friends follow clues left by some insane renegade soldier.

The sisters, Kate and Morgan (played by Eva Link and Madeline Link) receive a DVD from Afghanistan, which they presume to be a piece of correspondence from their father (Timothy Paul Coderre). It’s a snuff film of sorts as the shoddily produced video depicts a woman (Rachel Cairns) bound to a tree in the woods. Naturally, Kate and Morgan go to their boyfriends instead of handing the video over to the police and the boys, John (Olivier Suprenant) and Rhys (Caedan Lawrence), trek out to the woods and go play Blair Witch. More clues appear and the kids wander into the clutches of the crazy killer like a bunch of mice led to their death as they follow breadcrumbs into a trap. These kids are so stupid that they deserve to die.

The friends film every aspect of the investigation, which lends to the ineffective, if not fatal, play of the found footage style. Morgan and Rhys are avid documentarians and they carry cameras with them wherever they go. American Descent features ample scenes of people having conversations into cameras, capturing their own dialogue in shots/reverse shots, and the actions of the teens seem so insanely removed from reality that their reluctance to take the evidence of brutal crimes to the police, even when it informs them they are the killer’s target, makes the film impossible to swallow. In fact, American Descent strains credibility so much that the kids actually go to the police, learn that the police are taking the matter seriously, and then continue investigating on their own.

The irrational behaviour is only one major detractor of the found footage, for American Descent features ample bits of self-referentiality—notes about filming and how the kids aren’t in a movie—that only draw attention to the cheesy artifice of the tale. The format becomes even more preposterous thanks to some very unconvincing performances (only Majic 100’s Katherine Dines as Kate and Morgan’s stepmother sells the material) and an utterly ludicrous editing job that crosscuts the kids’ nauseating handheld camerawork with footage made by the film’s military madmen, played by Mark Slacke. Only one sequence, the waterslide finale, uses the limited perspectives of the handheld cameras to build suspense.

American Descent somewhat safeguards itself in this regard by presenting a title card that positions the film as an edited work by Sergeant First Class Stephen Harris (Slacke) who uploaded the film as his message to the world. His storyline peppers itself with repellent, unwatchable violence. American Descent therefore splices shots of the kids following the clues about the missing woman with shots of Slacke ripping out the woman’s fingernails with plyers or talking to himself on camera, Hunter juxtaposes everything with random cutaways to road kill, prancing deer, or old cartoons of lambs fending off the slaughter. The associative editing is unintentionally hilarious and is arguably the proverbial nail in the coffin for the mockumentary style. American Descent doesn’t succeed as a thriller or as social commentary since Hunter’s delivery mashes one element against the other.

The film also struggles with its ambitions to appeal as a homegrown treasure or as an Ottawa-made product looking for life beyond one local screening. American Descent has the awkward placelessness of a Canadian film that desperately tries to be American, but shows its local colours at every turn. (And yes, there’s a u in “colours” even if Canadian bloggers are encouraged to write SEO-friendly American.) American Descent relies heavily on American pro-war ideology as Kate and Morgan’s dad ships off to Afghanistan and proudly wears a badge of the American flag on his uniform, but why Kate and Morgan ride a bus that is clearly from OC Transpo—note the giant maple leaves on the side of the buses—betrays some lazy filmmaking. The scenes of Afghanistan aren’t convincing—far less so than they are in producer Rob Menzies’ Penthouse North, which substitutes Ottawa for Afghanistan and New York comparatively better.

 Additionally, while Hunter shoots much of American Descent outside of the iconic Ottawa downtown core, the film features recognizable water parks and Nepean locations such as Lincoln Fields Mall and the skate park near Centrepoint (note the big City of Ottawa building in the background). It’s unmistakably Ottawa and a rare case in which a locally made film barely tries to hide its origins while trying to pretend it’s from somewhere else. Why make such an effort to set the film outside the 613 if its appeal is inevitably limited to local audiences? By appealing to everyone and no one, American Descent is a victim of its own unpleasant devices.

Rating: ★½ (out of ★★★★★)

American Descent was preceded by:

Subsurface Flow
(USA, 15 min.)
Dir. Carl Bird McLaughlin, Writ. Carl Bird McLaughlin, Gary Lauten, Sean Rourke Meehan
Starring: Deniele Clouthier, Sean Rourke Meehan
Subsurface Flow flows with the glimmer of a work from a filmmaker who clearly has potential. Carl Bird McLaughlin displays ample promise with this impressively shot bit of poetry, for his influences are clear and the inspiration behind the film is palpable. Subsurface Flow has heavy overtones of the elliptical ethereality of Terrence Malick as flighty shots of Deniele Clouthier accompany whispery voiceover, although film falls a bit too close to the twirl-in-the-wheat-fields Malick of To the Wonder. The Malickian style of Subsurface Flow is sumptuous and the visual palette of the film is a marvel, even if the use of indigenous persons as mythical monsters is problematic, and McLaughlin’s layered play on love, beauty, horror, and memory is stirring. This fluid and ambitious work makes McLaughlin a talent to watch.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

American Descent and Subsurface Flow screened at the Ottawa International Film Festival on Friday, Oct. 17 at the Mayfair Theatre.

OIFF 2014 runs Oct. 15-19.

More OIFF coverage may be found here.