Directed by #JoyMarzec
Film review by Nathanial Eker
Stop me if you've heard this one. 'A nun, a train-hopper, and a unsupervised child go on a road trip around New Mexico.' No, that isn't a bad joke, it's the premise of I Am That, a film that boasts undeniable potential, but ends up buried under its own tenuous plot when it should've been forty-five minutes shorter and much tighter. This comedy - adventure lacks the charm, wit, and elegance to pull off a layered story, with a deep message concealed by funny jokes. Instead, this trip to heaven is characterised by bizarre pacing, sloppy writing, and an inconsistent soundtrack.
Skylar is a cloistered nun. After her sister dies, she suffers an intense crisis of faith and embarks on a pilgrimage to her grave, to decide whether religion is still for her. Along the way she meets a Samurai obsessed adolescent named Mickey and a drifter named Tamas. The three travel the state and debate some of life's biggest questions.
Director and writer Joy Marzec makes admirable efforts to write a compelling and quirky comedy. I'd be surprised if there wasn't more than a little Taika Waititi in this director's favourite film list as the I Am That gives off Hunt for the Wilderpeople vibes throughout, which is no bad thing. Regrettably then, both scenes and characters are handled so clunkily that - with the exception of the troubled Skylar - they're almost impossible to connect with. Tamas and Mickey are the most egregious perpetrators, as both feel like little more than character archetypes. We've seen the melancholy drifter and the runaway child before, but just who are these people? Why (spoilers) does the cheery Mickey do a personality 180 and decide to kill himself when he merely sees his bruised Mother for the first time? It defies logic and makes for characters that are inconsistent at best and wholly unbelievable at worst.
The supporting characters fare better, though few are memorable. Marzec does do a good job of establishing this world as a reality far-removed from ours, though the overly-pessimistic view of people is a tad depressing. Indeed, the constant blows to our characters prevent any development and makes the stilted chemistry between our main trio even more jarring. There are opportunities for sparks to fly, but unfortunately neither the writing or performances are solid enough to make me believe in them.
Where praise can be given is in the film's atmosphere. Marzec takes their time and sets a scene well, establishing a desolate mise-en-scène that creates a Western-inspired tableau of New Mexico. The camera also follows the action well, though the frequent sharp pans can feel unnecessary at times. The change of aspect ratio when Skylar leaves the captivity of the temple is a nice trick, though the mind boggles why Marzec didn't use the smaller screen size when inside, and expand when Skylar escapes, as opposed to the opposite.
Pacing becomes a consistent issue too, as I Am That miraculously manages to be both sluggishly lethargic, while simultaneously creating unacceptable ellipses between scenes that leave character motivations unclear and plot beats devoid of logic. The soundtrack does little to aid the film's frantic pacing too, as it lacks consistency. At times we hear a solid and earnest acoustic guitar, appropriate for the setting and tone (good), then a mixture of early grunge rock (more questionable), and most randomly of all, synth music (not good at all).
But what about the message? A film that uses a pious protagonist with an ailing faith is an excellent device to explore big theological questions and explored those questions are. Faith is an essential component, not just for Skylar, but for Tamas and Mickey too. Their faith in religion, freedom, and family binds them together. It is this theme that ultimately offers I Am That salvation and saves it from total damnation. While no firm answer is given as to whether organised religion is the answer to life's problems, that's the point. Like in life, different and sometimes widely devout views are presented and ultimately, there is no answer.
There are just people and their faiths. This blunt realisation that self determination and personal belief is more important than any one group's point of view is a powerful and touching point in an otherwise flawed film. Much of I Am That is admirably tenacious and clearly well made. Regrettably much more of it is unfocused and misses its intended mark.
I Am That reviewer that must give this ambitious-yet-floundering film a two star rating.