Mark Jackson’s debut feature Without is the latest independent film to leave me excited by the work that young indie filmmakers are able to accomplish on very low budgets these days.
Without tells the story of a 19-year-old young woman, Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen), who takes a temporary job as a live-in caretaker for an elderly man named Frank (Ron Carrier). He appears to have suffered a major stroke and is now wheelchair bound. The film begins with a close-up of the young protagonist’s face, which the camera holds on for over 30 seconds. Her head is tilted slightly down and her eyes quiver ever so slightly. Following the opening credit, we see that Joslyn is actually looking at her Smartphone while on a ferry boat to her new job. Without is a film that deals with technology’s impact on the young, who depend on it to communicate with peers and validate their own existence. Finding herself isolated on an island off the coast of Washington State without either the Internet or a strong cell signal, Joslyn gradually becomes unglued.
A hulking taxi driver, Darren (Darren Lenz), initially picks her up at the ferry. He comes on to her right away and turns out to be a persistent suitor. She cleverly fends him off by pretending to be going to a different house. Through pictures on her Smartphone, we discover that Joslyn appears to be infatuated with a young Asian woman, suggesting that she’s already in love, which provides an explanation for her indifference to Darren. Things, however, turn out to be far more complicated than we imagine. Left without a means of communication with the outside world, Joslyn’s situation begins to parallel that of Frank.
Frank is unable to speak, but, according to his family, he still remains very willful. They insist on a regimen that they refer to as the “Bible” – he only watches the fishing channel, the sound on the TV has to be set at a certain prescribed level, knives can’t go in the dishwasher, and Frank won’t share his whiskey. While the family’s own relationship with Frank is shown to be perfunctory at best, they act condescendingly toward Joslyn, especially by inundating her with all their house rules, which they’ve written down for her. At one point later in the film, she performs a very funny skit for the helpless Frank that satirizes their ridiculous restrictions regarding the use of the television.
As Joslyn cares for Frank, she seems oddly remote. She quickly becomes bored with her daily routine: the strenuous work of caring for Frank (spoon feeding him meals and lifting him into bed), the occasional trips to get a chai with skim milk at a nearby coffee stand, physical fitness exercise, and yoga. Cut off from the world except for photos and videos stored on her cellphone, Joslyn sets up an old computer with a Skype camera. Questions begin to arise for the viewer, but Mark Jackson, the film’s writer and director, is very careful to parcel out the pertinent details of the story very slowly, so that the viewer is forced to connect the ambiguous dots.
The silence between the two characters and their inability to communicate becomes a major source of friction in the film and a catalyst for what follows. Joslyn begins to suffer her own torments in the isolated environment, so that her feelings toward Frank begin to shift. When she first changes his soiled undergarments, she discreetly looks away. Given what we discern to be her sexual orientation, it’s understandable. Yet a strange sexual undercurrent eventually develops between her and Frank, especially as her loneliness causes her own sexuality and pent-up anger and remorse to surface in shocking ways. Before long, Joslyn finds herself in conflict with nearly all the other characters in the film.
The film plays with a number of different genres. As one might expect, the situation of a woman alone on an island contains elements of suspense and horror. What exactly is that skin rash that mysteriously appears on her back? Frank’s groans start to sound like a howling wolf. Her incapacitated client may or may not be as helpless as he seems. And the spurned Darren may actually pose a threat. Jackson is adept at making us wonder what’s real, given Joslyn’s growing instability, and what’s merely inside her head. The film’s strength is how Jackson is able to use a simple story and few elements to create such riveting dramatic tension.
Much of the film’s success is a result of Joslyn Jensen, who gives a brilliant, uninhibited performance as the film’s lead character. If there’s one thing certain these days, it’s that there are a bunch of terrific young performers out there. Jensen is so good, however, that it’s hard not to concentrate solely on the subtleties of her rendering of the character, especially in how she is able to portray steamy eroticism. Much of her performance is communicated nonverbally – through facial expressions, bodily movement, abrupt mood swings, and a song she sings while playing the ukulele that expresses the pain and grief of her character with such depth it will haunt you long after the film is over. Ron Carrier is excellent as well. He portrays Frank with a slight sense of menace, so that we’re never quite sure how to read his character.
Without was shot with a Canon 5D camera. This relatively inexpensive HD camera is notorious for giving shallow depth of field to an image. The film’s cinematographers, Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia, utilize this defect to great advantage. In an early scene, the camera is placed behind Joslyn, so that we move in with her toward the blurry shore as the ferry docks. The muted background of the shots often seems to suggest her own tenuous psychological state.
It’s hard to imagine the film being passed over for the Sundance Film Festival last year, especially given some of the other films that were programmed. Without played at Slamdance instead. It has also screened at Locarno and other film festivals and been nominated for a number of prestigious independent film awards. I’m told by Mike King, one of the programmers, that Without has been selected to play at the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival in April, along with Sophia Takal’s Green, which I have written about previously. Both films are not to be missed.
Mark Jackson’s Without represents a remarkable debut feature. An impressive character study, the film addresses issues of human communication and technology, as well as memory and loss. In exploring a young female character’s fragile psyche with an economy of means, Jackson uses the inability to communicate as a means to evoke what’s percolating under the surface. At the film’s opening, we view Joslyn’s seemingly innocent face, unaware of how much it hides. And the Smartphone she stares at so intently, little do we realize how much of her past life is contained in such a small handheld device.