The Block Island Sound

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Block Island Sound
"Despite its initial openness and the length of time it takes for subtle clues to build into something on which theories can be built, it's dramatically consistent throughout and very effective at mood-building." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

Something is wrong in the waters off Block Island. It begins as a rumour, the sharing of fishermen's stories. On a drive home at night a fish falls out of the sky, landing on a car. Soon there are dead fish washed up on the beach on great number. Dead birds, too. it's a lot to deal with for Harry (Chris Sheffield) who is already in a state of anxiety due to the strange behaviour of his father Tom (Neville Archambault). Are the old man's blackouts and strange ideas a product of developing dementia, or something else? As Harry starts to have strange experiences himself, the matter grows still more urgent.

Further stress factors exacerbate this. His running out of patience with his friend Dale (Jim Cummings), whose passion for conspiracy theories is now starting to feel too close to home. Then there's his sister Audry (Michaela McManus), who arrives at the house with co-worker Paul (Ryan O’Flanagan) and young daughter Emily (Matilda Lawler) in tow, ready to exercise her skills as a marine biologist in trying to get to the bottom of the marine mystery. And she's the sister he mostly gets along with.

Emily is at that age where she's starting to question what her mother does at work. What happens to the fish who get taken out of the sea? How can the research be good for them if they die? She's also spooked by her grandfather's strange behaviour, and there are hints of longstanding problems between the two. Whilst trying to manage all this, Audry worries about her father and tries to get Paul appropriate medical help. He's bitter about her leaving the family to focus on her career. She seems to feel that he's hidden behind caring for their father in order to get out of making something of his life - yet the love between them is clear. As his condition declines, she's the character who comes to the fore. As she tries to learn more about what might be wrong with him, she's unwittingly drawn closer to the answers she was originally looking for.

Grounded by its gritty yet easily relatable family dynamic, this is a film that invites viewers to speculate in wildly different directions before it eventually narrows its options and comes to a tight, logical conclusion. It was an interesting choice for Fantasia 2020, which presented the perfect audience for playing with genre expectations. Despite its initial openness and the length of time it takes for subtle clues to build into something on which theories can be built, it's dramatically consistent throughout and very effective at mood-building.

The claustrophobia inherent in all island settings is enhanced by the tensions within the family unit. Rather than presenting us with airy open spaces and wide sea views, director brothers Kevin and Matthew McManus keep their focus close in most of the outdoor scenes and, indoors, choose angles and lighting which emphasise the smallness of the house. By night, when Harry goes wandering, they focus on the banks and curves of the coast, the tight edges of a world that can only be escaped by way of a still smaller one.

Beyond the innate horror of Harry and Tom's decline, the film has a number of tricks up its sleeves. A final third encounter with a trailer-dwelling stranger lurches into Lynchian territory, and there's an ongoing undercurrent of concern for the more physically vulnerable characters in a context where anybody might suddenly start losing control. The film does not ultimately depend on any of this, however, emerging as a different beast entirely.

Though it never quite matches the scale of its ambitions, The Block Island Sound is an intriguing and resonant piece of work that will leave viewers keen to see more from this filmmaking team.

Reviewed on: 31 Aug 2020
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A mysterious force lurks off the coast of Block Island, curiously influencing the surrounding town and wildlife.

Director: Kevin McManus, Matthew McManus

Writer: Kevin McManus, Matthew McManus

Starring: Michaela McManus, Jim Cummings, Neville Archambault, Ryan O'Flanaghan, Jeremy Holm

Year: 2020

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Fantasia 2020

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