Cancer is contagious in Hannah Marks and Joey Power’s intelligent romance “Shotgun.” Not literally, of course. Only 23-year-old Elliot (Jeremy Allen White) is at risk of dying from the tumor on his pelvic bone. But his new girlfriend Mia (Maika Monroe), who luckily or unluckily had her first date with Elliot days after his diagnosis, embraces his illness with the heedless devotion of young love.
A week ago, she was a bored spreadsheet drone at a toothpaste marketing firm and he was a party-hardy sandwich clerk wondering why his groin hurt during a one-night stand. They were typical Brooklyn millennials idly pawing through Tinder. Cancer ennobles them. Better, it confirms their quiet suspicion that their lives until now have just been a waste of time. As evidence, her roommates (Sasha Lane and Olivia Luccardi) and his best friend Nico (DeRon Horton) exist mainly to get wasted and watch trash TV. Though they’d never say it out loud — and the script doesn’t make them — Elliot’s potential death has elevated them to the best versions of themselves.
That’s the sick joke underlying Marks and Power’s compelling debut that whisks audiences on the same emotional, impulsive arc as the young couple. Elliot is an aimless barfly who picks up girls by bragging about his 99-cent therapy app which he’s never bothered to code. Mia, low-toned and guarded, already feels like a misfit in a town where everyone seems to be having more fun. Chemotherapy sobers him and adds sparkle to her. It yanks them into the same emotional state, a fiefdom of two, where they shut out everyone else to Google, “What happens when u take mdma and have cancer.”
The writer-director pair behind “Shotgun” aren’t much older, which gives them the insight to understand why Elliot deflects Wed MD-obsessed Mia’s texts about his health with a sobbing emoji, and the perspective to know that his response also looks ridiculous. “Shotgun” feels honestly, mostly — though a scene where Elliot’s mother (Callie Thorne) tries to sound cool by casually saying the word “DTF” (like her, look it up in Urban Dictionary if needed) feels like a lazy comedy riff on the rapping granny.
Better is the film’s observation that in a crisis, people take on accidental significance. Normally, it wouldn’t mean much if Elliot imagines the cute girl he just met bouncing around in her bra. But place him in a sperm bank and suddenly it does. Though “Shotgun” struggles a little to pull audiences along on it’s deliberately unformulaic arc — the movie’s three speeds are caution, sprint, and collapse, set to Xander Singh’s Brooklyn-pop score — nearly every scene reveals a tiny, startling truth about what it’s like to grow up way too fast. Its refractory tone, both deadpan and swoony, announces that the first-time feature directors have a phenomenal eye for character (which is something those who’ve been watching Marks’ work as an actress may already have realized).
Marks herself would have been a good fit for the lead, but it’s great to see scream queen Monroe, who wowed genre audiences with “It Follows” and “The Guest,” show off what she can do when frightened of a more ordinary killer. Monroe’s grounded presence keeps the film’s feet on the ground, while White allows his character to spin into orbit when self-pity commands it. Alas, he can’t afford anything on his bucket list besides smashing a watermelon on his roof. Thank heavens “Shotgun” is fictional — audiences want to see every talent involved live on to make more films.