An “Asian-American Beauty” set against a backdrop of global decay and illuminated by splashes of “Waking Life”-style animation, “Half-Life” reps a precocious if rather precious debut feature for writer-director Jennifer Phang. Maintaining a largely child’s-eye perspective on the sexual, religious and ethnic rifts stirred up in a California suburb, this emotionally potent experiment hits some false notes and occasionally strains for poetic effect, but also evinces the sort of imagination that, Phang argues, is necessary for human survival in the world as we know it. Arthouse success may be elusive, but fest sidebars and cultish DVD biz beckon.
Indeed, “Half-Life’s” gorgeously CG-animated flights of fancy (designed by Matthew Pugnetti) are vivid and creative enough to make a viewer wish there were more of them. These brief, colorful sequences are the drawings of 8-year-old Timothy Wu (winning newcomer Alexander Agate); they offer the boy a respite from the difficulties of life with his mother, Saura (Julia Nickson), and older sister, Pam (Sanoe Lake), in California’s Diablo Valley.
Abandoned by her husband, Saura has since taken up with Wendell (Ben Redgrave), a much younger hunk with a misleadingly friendly demeanor. Saura treats Wendell as her refuge while growing increasingly sullen and temperamental with her children, particularly Pam, a glum teen who suffers from a lack of direction.
With the TV continually blaring dire news from around the world — coastal regions flooded due to global warming, chainsaw-related murder-suicides, etc. — “Half-Life” aims to be a comically skewed vision of liberal-left despair. Along similar lines, Pam’s friend, gay Korean-American teen Scott (Leonardo Nam), falls for black schoolteacher Jonah (Lee Marks), defiantly throwing his sexuality in the face of his religious adoptive parents (James Eckhouse, Susan Ruttan).
Latter are on the receiving end of pic’s dismissive, one-note attitude toward those it perceives as conservative-minded squares. To an even more extreme degree, Wendell becomes the out-and-out villain of the piece, when the tensions between him, Saura and Pam come to a boil one evening. From there, the film leaps into a bold, semi-mystical realm, literalizing its theme of child empowerment — a development that will strike some auds as naive, others as beautifully inspiring.
Nickson and Lake are both prickly, sympathetic and entirely convincing as a mother and daughter whose relationship stiffens and thaws through multiple complex stages. As written, taciturn Tim is a bit of a blank, though understandably so, given his role as viewer stand-in, and Agate’s wide, expressive eyes help fill in the void.
It’s Tim’s relationship with older sis Pam that forms the centerpiece of “Half-Life,” as their shared reveries inspire Phang’s lushest compositions: blood-red sunsets, leaves rustling in the wind, their hushed, restive poetry at times calling to mind the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. If pic contains arguably one too many shots of seagulls in flight, an easy symbol of escape from mundane reality, d.p. Aasulv Wolf Austad can hardly be blamed for lingering on his imagery.
Shot where it’s set, pic is soaked in California desert-valley ambience. Tech credits are fine.