This review was provided by Nick White from our Open Call for Film Critics & Writers! Buy your Festival pass or individual tickets to watch both these films on GFF On Demand. Please check out Nick’s other review of The Twentieth Century here!
dir. Milos Mitrovic / Fabian Velasco
2019 | Canada | 78 min.
Review by Nick White
With its opening sequence of a man very graphically finding blood in his feces before crying in a riverbed, a young couple having sex right next to him while Beethoven’s 9th blares out, directors Milos Mitrovic and Fabian Velasco seem to promise a bizarre experience with Tapeworm. It’s a striking opening, to say the least, but ultimately a misleading one, as the rest of the film instead goes for something a lot more bland and mundane. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though given its subject matter.
While you might be inclined to wonder if the film’s parasitic title is literal after Brooks’ rather unhealthy looking deposit, it quickly becomes clear that the real thing eating away inside each character is depression and the feelings of isolation and entrapment that come along with it. The film explores the various ways it manifests itself through its ensemble of unnamed characters, including a middle-aged hypochondriac (Adam Brooks), an amateur comedian (Alex Ateah), a video game lovingslacker (co-director Mitrovic), and a couple of stoners (Sam Singer and Stephanie Berrington), focusing on the aimless cycles that all of them are trapped in. It’s a stark shift from the surreal bravado of the opening, but once the film establishes its rhythm it’s quite effective at evoking its characters’ mental states and the weight that hangs over all of them.
It’s largely established through the film’s aesthetic, with cinematographer Markus Henkel’s flat and diffused 16mm photography, its quiet, empty sound design, and the film’s Winnipeg setting, all gloomy skies and barren apartments, creating a feeling of oppressive banality that surrounds all the characters. It rather admirably turns the film’s apparent limited budget and resources into assets, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t skeptical of the film at first based on its style. Canadian cinema has no shortage of these kinds of quiet, minimalist, micro-budget films as of late, but Tapeworm does stand out from the pack largely because of its sense of humour. Yes, it’s a film about depression, but its mood is often so deeply awkward and cringe-inducing that laughing is all you can do to not get caught in the spiral of it. Ateah’s comedian character and the deliberately lifeless delivery of her jokes in particular elicit a lot of uncomfortable laughter, but the film never feels mean-spirited about it. It gives us enough of a look into each character’s personal lives that we, for the most part, feel empathy for them (Brooks and Ateah more so than the others who feel pretty half-baked) and know that there really isn’t anything funny about any of this, but the humour still works as a necessary break from the film’s generally overbearing mood.
Tapeworm’s greatest strength is how well it establishes that mood, but in some ways the effectiveness of it ends up becoming a weakness. It’s so immediately, all encompassingly uncomfortable that by the time you get 30 minutes into its 78 minutes runtime, it feels like the film has largely already done everything it sets out to do, and just becomes draining more than illuminating going forward. It could perhaps be said that this is just another facet of the film’s attempt to evoke the state of its character, likelywishing that they could escape from this story just as much as I do, but when the film is able to capture that already though without the extended runtime it just ends up feeling a bit too punishing on the audience. This is especially true when there is clear fat that could be trimmed from the film. Both Mitrovic’s slacker and Singer and Berrington’s stoners feel pretty underdeveloped and superfluous here, and I can’t help but wonder how the film would have worked if it had perhaps dropped their plot lines and given more focus and depth to the others, or if the filmmakers had just picked one character and instead created a short about them (Ateah, with the greatest sense of an arc, probably being the most deserving). It’s a shame because the film does have its successes, especially in regards to how committed it is to its style and tone, but, like with its characters, I can’t help but be left hoping that it could find a way to find a bit more direction.