Brave New Jersey


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Brave New Jersey
"A real charmer of a film."

On Sunday the 30th of October, 1938, an adaptation of HG Wells classic The War Of The Worlds directed and narrated by Orson Welles with his Mercury Theatre caused consternation when some listeners misintepreted it as a news broadcast and got the impression that Martians were invading the Earth for real. The figure of six million fleeing in panic was almost certainly an exaggeration, promulgated in part by William Randolph Hearst's newspaper group (and perhaps one of the reasons for Welles' oblique attach on Hearst in 1941's Citizen Kane), but in some places - such as the town of Concrete, where a coincidental power cut stoked up fears and made clarifying the situation impossible - there was real alarm. Set in the fictional small town of Lullaby, New Jersey, Jody Lambert's film invites viewers to imagine what it must have been like on that unfateful night - and how sometimes, nothing happening can change everything.

Over the decades since the non-event took place, the people who believed in the Martian invasion have generally been treated with ridicule. Lambert finds comedy in their situation by making clear, from the outset, that their behaviour wasn't really that unreasonable. Although Wells' book was written in 1898, the world had changed since in ways that brought it even closer to home. The Great War of 1914 to 1918 had led ordinary infantrymen to feel overwhelmed and helpless in a way unlike any war before. Now, with German incursions taking place in Czechoslovakia, the prospect of devastating conflict was looming once again. America's paranoid fear of Communism was taking root, and magazines like Amazing Stories, Weird Tales and Wonder Stories had introduced ordinary people to the notion that there might be life on other planets. Although we don't get all the details here, we catch little hints and glimpses of these things, and we pick up on a tense mood in the sleepy little town long before the radio broadcast starts. In the meantime, however, many of the people of Lullaby are preoccupied with something else - the invention of an automatic milking machine which they believe will finally put them on the map.

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Given what Wells' Martians do to humans - and their eventual fate - there's additional humour in this haphazard attempt to master the biological with the mechanical. It's one of many little parallels between the literary and 'real' narratives, but they never get in the way. The film is very much an ensemble piece so takes the time to introduce us to key characters, and though some are played directly for laughs - Leonard Earl Howze as a man with no intention of being slaughtered by aliens, Dan Bakkedahl as a reverend struggling with his faith - most of the comedy stems from their interactions. Crucially, none are presented as stupid, thoug some are a little more shrewd than others about the situation that develops overnight.

A slow initial approach to the town and lots of panoramic landscape shots give us a sense of the real isolation of such places, especially in an era before modern communications and when there are relatively few cars. It's easy to imagine invaders picking off towns like Lullaby one by one. The townspeople's first instinct is to flee, but sometime soldier Ambrose P Collins (Raymond J Barry, delivering a performance that recalls his recent work in Gotham) rallies the troops, persuading them that their best chance is to make a stand. The absolute hopelessness of this approach takes a while to dawn. It calls into question the relevance of local militia - a sacred concept to some Americans - in the modern world, and it also invites us to question the behaviour of numerous characters in action blockbusters where alien invaders are a very real part of the narrative.

This elaborate frame makes room for plenty of interpersonal drama as everyone faces what might be their last night of life. Although the film feels true to Thirties society, and a sweet story about odd job man Clark (Tony Hale) pining over his married neighbour owes much to the romances of the period - there's room for some decidedly modern sensibilities, with the women in the film by no means contented with playing second fiddle to the men. Although the vast majority of viewers will be aware from the outset of the townspeople's error, there's no sense of frustration in waiting for them to figure it out - instead, what might have seemed a stupid waste of time comes to seem like an opportunity to figure out what really matters and - perhaps - do something about it.

A real charmer of a film, Brave New Jersey will appeal to viewers of all ages and backgrounds. It may not have any big surprises but it does what it does exceptionally well, with fluid direction and pitch perfect performances. Sometimes, as Wells observed, it's the humblest creations that really matter.

Reviewed on: 31 Jul 2017
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Brave New Jersey packshot
As Orson Wells reads War Of The Worlds on the radio, a small town falls into a state of panic.

Director: Jody Lambert

Writer: Michael Dowling, Jody Lambert

Starring: Anna Camp, Raymond J Barry, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Heather Burns, Sam Jaeger, Tony Hale

Year: 2016

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: US


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