There’s a fascinating experiment at the heart of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s ‘Spring’. The filmmakers wanted to see whether or not it’s possible to create a movie that is both a slow and delicate romantic drama and a surreal supernatural horror flick. Though the movie hits many intriguing high notes while toying with that concept, the ultimate answer to the question is, sadly, “Not really.”
Lou Taylor Pucci stars as Evan, a troubled young man who opens the film forced to leave his sad little life due to a combination of personal tragedy and self-destructive troublemaking. He soon finds himself bumming around Italy as a backpacker. He hooks up with a pair of hard-drinking Brits for some delightfully bad behavior before finding his way into a beautiful and isolated island community. Once there, he catches a glimpse of the beautiful Louise (Nadia Hilker) and knows that he can’t leave without at least trying to pursue her. So he ditches his new buddies, gets a job as a farmhand, and starts his little dance of seduction.
The intended love interest is reluctant at first, but when you live in a picturesque village practically designed for ‘Before Sunrise’-style long lingering walks with romantic chats, these things tend to work themselves out. Soon, the duo fall in love and all seems well. Yet, Evan can’t shake the suspicion that Louise is concealing a secret. There’s also some sort of monster thing that stalks the town at night and often kills people. Do you think these two stories might be connected?
The film is undeniably beautiful to look at. It marks the first time that this filmmaking duo (who previously helmed the ‘Bonestorm’ segment of the anthology ‘V/H/S: Viral’) have been given a budget, and they make the most of their resources. The locations are stunning and Benson/Moorhead go out of their way to milk the location for all it’s worth. At times, it seems like the most gorgeously romantic place in the world. At other times, it feels like a nightmare.
The romantic portion of the story makes up the bulk of the movie and the influence of Linklater’s conversational ‘Before’ trilogy is resoundingly obvious. While Hilker isn’t quite as strong a performer as Pucci, she’s easy on the eyes. The pair share warm chemistry, and since her character is supposed to be rather cold and distant, her limitations can occasionally come off as strengths. Benson/Moorhead aren’t quite as good as Linklater at translating verbally driven romantic tension into gripping filmmaking, but they try and it’s charming. Eventually, the movie gearshifts into genre territory and the directors are clearly more comfortable there.
Without getting too much into spoilers, one of these lovers isn’t quite what they seem and has some mysterious Lovecraftian monster tendencies. That obviously changes the movie dramatically, while also serving as a potent metaphor for the fear of intimacy. It’s a clever way of twisting romance into horror. The trouble is that despite how clever ‘Spring’ is conceptually, or how well some sequences in the film work, it just doesn’t quite hold together overall. After carefully building a delicate character drama for the bulk of the running time, the spiral into monster movie land feels more confusing than exciting. Any empathy or investment that audiences might have in the romance will be tough to maintain for viewers who aren’t into horror. Likewise, those who showed up to ‘Spring’ for genre thrills will be bored to tears during the dialogue-driven opening hour.
The directors deserve to be commended for committing so fully to this oddball experiment, but unfortunately that experiment just doesn’t work. The film never feels like a single satisfying whole. It feels like two distinctly different movies jammed together uncomfortably. There may well be a small subset of the audience who enjoy lingering romance and surreal horror enough that they are fascinated by the combo, but that’s a fraction of the audience who will see this movie. Most will likely leave frustrated.
Still, Benson and Moorhead are clearly talented filmmakers who delivered something intriguing. Even if the movie doesn’t quite hold together, sequences are wonderful and you have to admire the balls of combining such wildly different cinematic tones. If they continue to experiment with similar strange genre mashups, the duo might well strike gold eventually and deliver something thrillingly original. ‘Spring’ isn’t that movie, but it works well enough to suggest that the filmmakers are capable of such things in the future.