The story begins with the events leading up to an automobile crash that proves fatal for all but one of the car’s occupants, Sean Beckett, the driver (an impressively solid and tender showing by Collin Janson.) Beckett is judged at fault for the accident, and is sentenced to a prison term. From here, the story shifts forward to just before Beckett is released and we are re-introduced to the family of one of the victims.
Sarah Newhouse is the picture of a fractured psyche as Juna Barnes, the mother of the deceased. Her expression of the bottomless loss in a child’s death is brilliantly subtle. She runs the gamut between numbly getting through her life and a manic outcry to other survivors for some sense of justice. A justice that cannot come in the form she hopes. Or can it?
In Matthew, the brother of the deceased, (Mike Bash deftly conveying cold vengeance and the warmth of familial love) we encounter an injured soul, incapable of forgetting or forgiving. We see that he has been engaging in an ongoing campaign to prevent Beckett’s release. Simultaneously, Matthew devotes himself to protecting his younger sister from the pain that permeates their family. Where his mother is trying to come to grips with the unfortunate facts of their situation, Matthew believes the law has failed his family, in spite of his commitment to the process. His solution to this frustration drives the plot to a chillingly brutal, if very human, conclusion.
Grounding the family with both their need to preserve her innocence and her own precocious awareness of the tragedy is youngest child, daughter Jamie (newcomer Abby Austin). It is Jamie’s youthful ability to believe in better tomorrows that adds a bittersweet beauty to her interactions with what remains of her family.
From the moment of his release, it is clear that the locals have not forgotten Beckett’s transgression and that he is decidedly unwelcome in his own home town. The feeling is even echoed, if not endorsed, by his mother, Nora (a warmly heart-breaking performance by Melanie May, full of earnest fear and worry,) and Uncle Rob (portrayed with a calm stoicism by Eric R. Eastman). Under a shade of painful regret, lit only by the faint hope that one day his crime will be forgotten, Beckett settles in and attempts to reclaim his life.
The remainder of the film is an impressively elegant and subtle dance of mounting tensions. The pressure is felt on all sides: in Beckett’s mind, within the Beckett and Barns’ families, and between them. The disturbing sense of reflection under pressure envelopes the audience, as the story builds to its dark crescendo. All of this is rendered with a chillingly creepy use of shadow, ambient lighting, and fittingly, the harsh glare of headlights. The overall visual effect is the sense that you are in someone else’s dream of their darkest hour, everything bearing a wholly normal, yet subjectively alien appearance. Brewer succeeds in stimulating, and emotionally capturing the audience, without ever sacrificing or over-selling the measured clarity of his vision.
By the end of the experience (and it is quite an experience…) none of the above questions are answered. The good guy doesn’t get the girl, there is no clear lesson learned. All we learn about loss, redemption, vengeance, and forgiveness is that the capacity for each of these, and a million other states of mind, is within each of us. The values and limits of these things are left to us to define, as we make our own way through life.
In summary, Beneath Contempt is a powerful drama that dissects the family dynamic to strike directly at the heart of the individual. It is a quietly dignified tour de force that brings the audience face to face with the truths we would rather leave unexplored within ourselves. I recommend it for anyone interested in traversing the frontiers and testing the boundaries of humanity in the face of mortality.
Directed by Benjamin Brewer
Film Website : www.beneathcontemptfilm.com
Review written by Joseph James Bellamy
Editor: Rod Webber
Published by Reel Zine
© Reel Zine 2011