Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"For all its playful trappings, this is at heart a survival film."

Abbie (Joshua Burge) is a failure. In most contexts that term is subjective, but in this case there are really very few criteria by which he might be understood differently. He lives on his brother's couch, has never had a job, doesn't even bother to get dressed, and has failed every challenge that his brother (David Dastmalchian) has ever set for him. Yes, he seems like a nice guy, and yes, his brother is a terrible bully, but still, we can see where the frustration behind that might stem from. On the brink of giving up on him, his brother sets him one final challenge: reach and defeat level 256 on Pac-Man. Then he leaves. He'll be back in the new year, he says. What Abbie hasn't really grasped is that it's July, he can't cheat because he's on camera, and he's forbidden to leave the couch in the meantime.

Sounds impossible? Abbie is determined not to blow it this tine, seeing this as his last chance to be somebody. Cinema has presented us with many such heroes before, just rarely in circumstances this stark, relatable or disgusting. At first, friends come by to help or to exploit the situation, but ultimately this is a struggle that Abbie will have to face alone, using every ounce of his ingenuity to do so - and that's before the year 2000 rolls around and the Y2K bug, still unresolved in this timeline, does its thing.

Copy picture

For all its playful trappings, this is at heart a survival film, sometimes functioning as pastiche and sometimes showing us the distilled essence of the genre. Whilst Pac-Man runs away from those ghosts, Abbie must pit himself against the elements. Burge is impressive in the lead, showing viewers how much this challenge means and keeping us with Abbie as his mind inevitably begins to deteriorate. Isolation, deprivation and intense focus carry him through the mystical aspects of the warrior's journey, so that when the world outside his window begins to deteriorate, he is strangely prepared.

Video game nerds will love the set-up, though we don't really get to see much of the game itself - it goes without saying that Abbie finds most of the levels easy. What's impressive is that, though it doesn't always achieve its aims, the film never gets dull despite the fact that we spend all of it watching a man on a couch. The already degraded state of his surroundings and the rubbishness of some of his visitors will strike a chord with many. Director Joel Potrykus always seems, however, to be laughing wit rather than at his subjects. There is no pretence that any of this is okay, yet we never lose sight of their humanity.

A textbook exercise in low budget filmmaking and a highly inventive piece of work, Relaxer is destined to attract a cult following. An award winner at Fantasia 2018, it may not be for everyone but it's certainly not something you'll be quick to forget.

Reviewed on: 21 Dec 2019
Share this with others on...
Relaxer packshot
With the impending Y2K apocalypse fast approaching, Abbie is faced with the ultimate challenge - the unbeatable level 256 on Pac-Man - and he can't get off the couch until he conquers it. A survival story set in a living room.

Director: Joel Potrykus

Writer: Joel Potrykus

Starring: Joshua Burge, David Dastmalchian, Andre Hyland

Year: 2018

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: UK


Fantasia 2018

Search database: