Alex Barrett’s “Life Just Is” navigates its way through the sort of miniature epiphanies that commonly occur during the rather nerve-racking decade comprising one’s twenties. These small realizations may not add up to much on paper, but they are crucial steps in one’s personal growth. I was struck by how several members of the audience laughed at the final scene of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” where its young hero comes to a better understanding of life and his place within it. His articulation of the ideas racing through his mind were awkward in a way that felt entirely authentic, and their inner truth spoke volumes. At its best, Barrett’s British indie conjures a similar naturalism that will resonate with any viewer who has ever had, as one character puts it, a “pre-life crisis.”
Two of the film’s most affecting performances are delivered by Jack Gordon (previously seen in Andrea Arnold’s great “Fish Tank”) and Nathaniel Martello-White (a hugely charismatic screen presence) as Pete and Tom, two friends who initially appear to be polar opposites. Tom can’t understand why Pete stays holed up in his room obsessively reading books that present troubling theories on the meaning of existence, while Pete can’t understand why his peers aren’t equally obsessed. When Tom asks him whether he ever gets lonely being by himself all day, Pete responds, “No more than when I’m in a crowd.” Soon, Pete experiences nightmarish visions that throw his entire philosophical outlook into a state of crisis, and Tom rightly observes that his pal is placing himself on a path toward imminent self-destruction. Tom’s a healthy influence on Pete, yet at the same time, he’s having unsettling visions of his own, materializing in the form of an unknown man who always happens to be lurching down the sidewalk every time he steps outside.
Another insightful subplot revolves around Jay (Jayne Wisener) and her new, thirtysomething boyfriend with the oddly boyish name of Bobby (Paul Nicholls). Pete dubs him as “shallow” after their first encounter, when Bobby acknowledges the Kierkegaard book he’s reading. Bobby recalls his own memory of encountering the Danish philosopher’s work, before promptly dismissing it, saying, “I was young at the time,” thus inadvertently dating himself. The disconnect between him and Jay grows quickly apparent, as she drifts further and further from his advances. Finally, he gives up and leaves her sitting alone, as the camera closes in on her face. She weeps softly and then grows silent, as if coming to terms with the fact that the break-up, while painful, was necessary (Wisener’s work here is sublime). It’s in these silences where the film is at its most intriguing. No attempt is made at underlining the emotional texture of these moments with an obtrusive score or unnecessary dialogue. When Tom’s girlfriend, Claire (Fiona Ryan), sits on the couch, waiting to apologize for kissing a guy during a party the night before, the camera simply sits with her for an excruciatingly protracted beat. No words are needed, and Barrett’s debut feature script wisely restrains itself.
What is perhaps most pleasurable about the film is how it grapples with big questions while viewing them through the perspective of a postgrad overwhelmed by the sheer immediacy and magnitude of adulthood. It’s great to see young characters with more on their mind than getting laid, and the Linklater comparison is especially appropriate, considering his magnificent conversation-driven trilogy that kicked off with 1995’s beguiling “Before Sunrise,” which recreated the act of falling in love in all of its stream-of-consciousness glory. Pete’s epiphany toward the end may seem as silly and simplistic as the one had by Linklater’s wide-eyed college freshman in “Boyhood,” not to mention obvious (see the title). Yet Barrett’s gaze is one of compassion rather than condescension, and he understands that if he can show us why this realization is meaningful to Pete, then it will be meaningful to us as well.
“Life Just Is” will be available online in the U.S. and Canada starting Thursday, March 26th, courtesy of its distribution partner, Yekra. For more information, visit the film’s official site.