Directed by James Choi
Starring Merrick Robison, Elizabeth Stenholt, Madysen Frances, & Ryan David Heywood
Indie Film Review by Chris Olson
The disenfranchised rarely find a home in mainstream movies, often not because audiences don't want those kinds of stories, but because green lights don't get given by studios looking for "sexy stars". I'm generalising here, but the reason for it is to highlight the massive appeal of indie films that are able to depict protagonists that don't fit the Hollywood silhouette. Empty Space, directed by James Choi, written by Paul Boring and Judith Krant, is a sublime coming-of-age tale that is occupied with outsiders as it's main characters, offering a fresh and unique perspective on adolescent frustrations and connections.
Tom (Merrick Robison) is a teenager trying to escape, in every sense of the word. He flees his hometown to go live in his grandmother's empty house in a rural town. He avoids getting close to anyone, and he is tormented by the cruel ghosts of his past and present whom relentlessly bully his large weight. Finding an unlikely friendship with a local roustabout called Rebecca (Madysen Frances), whose turbulent relationship with her drunkard father (Ryan David Haywood) is the cause of plenty of conflict, as well as developing a possible romance with a witty blind girl called Lilly (Elizabeth Stenholt), Tom's escapism becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.
Beautifully filmed with a marvellous indie soundtrack, Choi's film is full of engaging spectacle, excellent performances, and tender themes about growing pains that will tug audiences in all the right places. The relationships being depicted on screen not only feel authentic and believable, they also feel incredibly intimate without resorting to haphazard flesh tactics that would have undermined the heartfelt tone. Robison is a charming and disarming onscreen presence, but also steps up to the more demanding dramatic moments with a ferocity that is compelling. Stenholt is also excellent, delivering some lovely comedic moments, as well as one of the most emotionally poignant sequences where she reveals herself to Tom. The dynamic between these two performers is utterly captivating to watch.
Whilst Frances delivers a decent turn as Rebecca, her character felt the least clearly drawn. Elements of her storyline seemed shoehorned in alongside Tom's arc, and the relationship with her dad felt like it was too heavy as a subplot to attach to the movie. That being said, it was nice to see a female character being a formidable nuisance and bad influence rather than the precious stereotypes that audiences are usually treated to. A moment involving Rebecca and Tom's trumpet was particularly enjoyable...although that sentence does sound incredibly misleading.
A classic tale of coming-of-age delivered with honesty and beauty, Empty Space captures the infuriating chaos of trying to find one's self, when every moment feels like a hurdle, a challenge, or a whole load of star jumps and push ups.