The current controversy over Georgia’s restrictive new abortion laws, and resulting calls to withdraw Hollywood coin from that state, have underlined the political-shuffleboard nature of U.S. location shoots. Coincidentally arriving at the same time is “All Creatures Here Below,” the first feature to take advantage of Kansas City, Mo.’s filmmaker tax incentive, which is unusual in that it’s a strictly municipal rather than statewide ordinance.
That fiscal footnote may wind up being the most memorable thing about this sophomore feature by director Collin Schiffli, whose debut, “Animals,” was also a collaboration with scenarist-star David Dastmalchian. It’s a decently acted and crafted drama that nonetheless seems built on a foundation of phony pathos, revolving around doomed lovers whose fate seems more a matter of contrived miserabilism than authenticity. Goldwyn is opening the indie at 10 theaters across the nation on May 17, simultaneous with VOD launch.
Ruby (Karen Gillan) and Gensan (Dastmalchian) aren’t homeless, but otherwise live very close to the bottom rung of society on L.A.’s margins. At the start, she loses a church janitorial job because she gets too close to an adjacent school — apparently she has a history of covetousness toward other people’s kids. Gensan isn’t doing much better working at a pizzeria, though even that modest employment stability evaporates when his boss (David Koechner) informs him that corporate HQ has decided to shutter this storefront.
Panicked at how he and lifelong bestie/lover Ruby are going to stay afloat, Gensan bets his last paycheck on a cockfight. He loses but, amid the chaos of a police raid immediately afterward, manages to violently wrest the match’s winnings from its scary bet taker (Richard Cabral). This means he and Ruby must get outta town fast. But it turns out she has a surprise reason for fleeing too: She’s stolen a seemingly neglectful neighbor’s baby girl.
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The two leads give committed performances, even if Dastmalchian maybe didn’t need to commit to taking his shirt off every five minutes. Still, Gensan and Ruby feel like abstracts, actors’ conceptions of “desperate societal victims”—she’s a wide-eyed, waif-y naif with the attention span of a toddler, while he’s a short-fuse type who always seems on the verge of committing a felony. When we finally get a bit of their shared backstory, it comes in the form of a ludicrously overblown monologue (told by Gensan to John Doe as a sympathetic relative) that mashes together grotesque childhood abuse with a turkey-centric spin on Jodie Foster’s spiel about those silent lambs.
Forever yelling at each other, these two have an annoying dynamic. The wistfulness meant to be evoked by their fleeting “family” is seriously compromised by the fact that (as Gensan duly notes), Ruby is too much of a “dummy” to be safely allowed near any baby. She may have the mothering instinct, but she lacks the most basic sense.
Its road trip narrative wending from L.A. to K.C., “Creatures” has time for local color in Bongani Mlambo’s attractive widescreen cinematography. But there’s not much room for characters other than the principals, and mysteriously little interest in lending them greater dimensionality. We have to take on faith that their plight is a damn tragedy, albeit one that feels assembled out of spare parts from “Thieves Like Us,” “The Sugarland Express” and “Of Mice and Men.” The climactic pouring on of angelic choirs by Ceiri Torjussen’s original score does not lend poetical grandeur to a tale that remains stubbornly smaller-than-life.
Schiffli directs with a nice balance between momentum and naturalism. Yet the creditable handling can’t quite mask material that feels inorganically rooted in secondhand dramatic clichés. He and Dastmalchian might want to try another theme: “Animals” was also about a desperate young couple on the run from their own demons. Empathy for the unfortunate is a good thing, but these movies feel born of the kind of “life wisdoms” you get from acting class rather than from real-world experience.