Ashgrove

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Amanda Brugel and Jonas Chernick in Ashgrove
"Little details like sipping rather than drinking whole mouthfuls, or marking bottles to keep track of how much one has consumed, are so familiar to the characters that viewers too will quickly start taking them for granted." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

The majority of catastrophe fiction – and there’s a lot of it out there – focuses on the survival of individuals, families or communities and assumes that everybody is facing pretty much the same situation. The Covid-19 pandemic (which happened after this film was already in the works) may have made people a little more alert to the fact that, in reality, many different roles are played. Jennifer (Amanda Brugel) is part of that rare band of scientist heroes who haunt the edges of the genre. She’s more sympathetic than most but no less frazzled, working all hours for weeks on end in a desperate attempt to resolve the problem with the world’s water supply. When exhaustion leads to her losing control of her car, her supervisor steps in. She is ordered to take a few days’ rest. It’s simple triage. Without her brain working properly, she’s in no shape to save the world.

What has happened to the water? There are no lengthy technical explanations here. Suffice to say that a subtle change has occurred in its structure. This isn’t as devastating as Kurt Vonnegut’s famous Ice-9, but it’s still pretty devastating. Essentially, water has become toxic to the degree that it can only be consumed in very small amounts, so people must monitor their drinking and try to strike a balance between dying from dehydration and being poisoned. (People with severe histamine allergies will relate.) It gets worse, though. Even with the most diligent approach, death is probable within a few years. Humanity is facing an extinction event.

Copy picture

Director Jeremy LaLonde and his co-writers understand that this kind of thing is more effective if kept in the background, making room for a people-focused narrative. This is also a much more effective way to approach telling a big story on a small budget. We spend most of our time with Jennifer at the farm where she has been sent to recuperate. Her husband (Jonas Chernick) is also there, and the two of them take the opportunity to try to resolve their personal difficulties. Her work of late has meant that he hardly seen her. When he has, she’s been irritable, taking out stress on him just because he’s there. How much does she owe to him when billions more people are depending on her? He’s aware of his relative unimportance, but he still has needs, and if there is to be an afterwards, both of them want their marriage to survive.

Though she initially struggles to achieve any kind of normality, Jennifer gradually adjusts to her environment, if only by switching from worrying about work to worrying about her marriage. It’s a dynamic which will be personally familiar to many viewers, even if the details make it more extreme. Both parties are making a conscious effort not to snap at each other and to focus on the good things, but there’s a shadow hanging over them. A romantic boat ride on a nearby river is beautiful but emphasises their vulnerability. Even something as simple as washing the dishes takes on a different character, and one cannot watch them sharing a bottle of wine without being alert to the spectre of dehydration.

Water imagery suffuses the film, yet if one missed the start and didn’t know the premise, one might overlook it; nothing feels forced or out of place. Little details like sipping rather than drinking whole mouthfuls, or marking bottles to keep track of how much one has consumed, are so familiar to the characters that viewers too will quickly start taking them for granted. Meanwhile, life goes on. Colleagues visit and there is a discussion of new parenthood which might remind one of the garden planning in On The Beach. Perhaps all is not lost. Perhaps there will be a future. Is having a child in this world so very different from bringing one into a world impacted by climate change? It’s all a matter of degree. Compared with possible extinction what’s so important about a marriage? we might ask. But the actors make us care, make us understand why Jennifer responds as she does.

Not everything here is what it seems. An additional layer of mystery underscores the most mundane actions, deepening just as Jennifer’s adjustment threatens to deplete the tension. It’s one thing to notice it, another to figure out exactly what’s going on, and still another to process it emotionally when, in the end, Jennifer, having given so much, is asked to give still more. Very different in character from LaLonde and Chernick’s last film, James Vs His Future Self, this taut little drama presents a sort of accidental tribute to all the scientists and first responders who try to save others at the expense of their own needs – most of whose names we shall never know.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2022
Share this with others on...
Ashgrove packshot
An exhausted scientist working on a desperate project to save humanity is required to take leave on a country farm in order to recover her mental faculties.

Director: Jeremy LaLonde

Writer: Amanda Brugel, Jonas Chernick, Spencer Giese

Starring: Amanda Brugel, Jonas Chernick, Shawn Doyle

Year: 2022

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: Canada

Festivals:

Glasgow 2022

Search database:


Related Articles:

Something in the water

If you like this, try:

Tin Can