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Jethica is hardly a cohesive genre exercise

Jethica (Cinedigm)

Pete Ohs’ high-concept supernatural comedy tries on a lot of hats, but none of them fit very well.

What if the one person you wanted to forget simply wouldn’t forget you, even after they died? That’s the premise of Pete Ohs’ new film Jethica, at its best a high-concept comedy with the sunburnt edge of desert noir, but the trouble is waiting between labored set-ups and too-big performance notes to get to them. Ohs has many opportunities to mine the scenario for a weightier emotional core but leaves it in favor of a kind of affectless box-ticking. That is Ohs’ style, to be clear; it just seems fundamentally at war with itself. A comedy with no jokes, a horror movie with no scares, a ghost movie with no interest in the particulars of the afterlife or the terror of dying. It’s a little of a lot and a lot of too little.

When we meet Elena (the magnetic Callie Hernandez), she’s just finished having a backseat affair with a guy whose face we never see (Alan Palomo). He’s curious why they keep doing it in the car. Can’t they go to her house? No, she doesn’t really want anyone to see her house. She has secrets…though nothing she values so highly that she doesn’t immediately confess to murder when the guy presses her about it. What happened? It’s kind of a long story that doesn’t go anywhere.

A little while back Elena ran into an old friend of hers named Jessica (Ashley Denise Robinson). Jessica’s clearly disturbed about something because she at first tries to run from Elena as quickly as possible but then comes back. She just escaped a bad situation involving her stalker, Kevin (Will Madden), whose lisped messages of devotion give the film its title. The two kill a day together before they notice someone who looks an awful lot like Kevin following them around. The trouble is it can’t be Kevin…Kevin’s in the trunk of Jessica’s car. So who is that outside of Elena’s trailer professing his undying love to Jessica over and over again?

Writer/director Ohs has been slowly and steadily building a brand through his too-quirky improvisatory comedies built on high concepts and airy, vacant performances. He’s steeped himself in a lot of American independent cinema, if I don’t miss my guess, because the vibe he’s usually capturing is pitched like it’s the third feature in a triple bill with John Sayles’ Brother from Another Planet and Allison Anders, Dean Lent & Kurt Voss’ Border Radio. There’s nothing inherently wrong with so specific an ambition, except that, well, Sayles and Anders evolved past their minimalist trappings. Four films into his career and Ohs has yet to show off more than a decent eye for compositions and an affection for damaged, deadpan characters. From the world’s worst Witness Protection plant in Youngstown to the lonely robot-keeping dowsers of Everything Beautiful is Far Away, Ohs’ characters have problems that are usually solved by people taking them seriously for the first time.

Jethica (Cinedigm)
Jethica (Cinedigm)

Jethica bears the classic calling card indie hallmarks. The cast all have writing credits because they invented much of their own dialogue. The movie spends as much time drinking in the gorgeous Southwestern vistas as it does getting to know its heroes. Its generic elements are laid over each other like coats on a bed during a house party. The flashback structure is added for no compelling reason.

The surfeit of thematic ideas strangles Jethica’s interest in Jessica, Kevin, or Elena’s emotional plight (a true shame to get someone as obviously movie star charismatic as Hernandez and direct her to be a tight-lipped tough guy). Jessica commits a murder, goes on the lam, runs into an old friend, and then the man she killed comes back as a ghost, and none of this ever registers in Ohs’ images of Robinson’s face. She just accepts it, because the movie has other places to be. Ohs is obviously attempting to transport cliche and broad concepts to his world of struggling oddballs in a molasses-thick existential daze, but there needs to be more than the occasionally beguiling camera move, an admittedly strong sense of an alienating setting, and hints at darkness it cannot confront to justify shunting the psychological reality of its premise to the wings.

At times the film seems like a quasi-remake of Carnival of Souls (the make-up on the living dead characters suggests as much). But without the all-encompassing atmosphere of despair, what good is that reference point? You can’t lighten up pure malevolence unless you’ve got a perfect contradiction with which to do so. A ghost who won’t shut up about how wonderful you are and how perfect you’d be together is a hellish scenario, to be sure, but it’s not enough to bolt this film to the floor. Furthermore, Jethica seems to suggest, in its too-cute finale, that all a criminal stalker needs is a real friend to help grow out of their obsession. For a movie about burying bodies, this has too little interest in going beneath the surface.

Jethica is currently playing in theaters, and hits Fandor February 14th.

Jethica Trailer:

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CategoriesMovies
Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist from Doylestown, PA. He is the creator of the long running series The Unloved at RogerEbert.com, and is a regular contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, Consequence of Sound, and Nylon Magazine.

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