By Elias Savada.
Spiritual and haunting in its low decibel manner, the New England coming-of-age drama Neptune is an indie effort that follows a young teenager’s soul-searching excursion along a disconcerting and sometimes allegorical path. The film is a proudly-shot-in-Maine effort from Portland filmmaker, making a solid, passionate feature film debut after creating several popular and award-winning 2011 shorts (Are You the Walkers and The Bully) which he wrote and produced, as he has with his new film, with frequent collaborator Matthew Konkel. You won’t find the big bad scares of local boy turned horror-meister Stephen King wandering the seaside cliffs of Neptune‘s fictional Lacquesset Island. It’s the subtle, unsettling images and treble-amped sounds that vex Hannah Newcombe (with a fine minimalist performance by Jane Ackermann), the film’s protagonist, that you’ll remember.
Slowly, the storytellers provide the backstory to this 1989 tale of a caring, dutiful, but emotionally-deprived 14-year-old orphan, long the ward of the overprotective Jerry (Tony Reilly), the small island’s Episcopal pastor, and their fraught relationship. Hannah is awaiting news whether she has been admitted to Holy Name Episcopal High School, a prestigious young women’s parochial icon in Stockton Springs (i.e., off-island) that Jerry has insisted she attend. The delicate observational nature of the film and the symbolic elements that are dropped along its 102-minute length are structured within a palette (courtesy of directors of photography Dean Merrill and Jayson Lobozzo) of serene New England pine tree greens, damp coastline greys, and troubling dark blue seas. While Hannah’s evenings all begin with the sameness of a grainy VHS tape she watches every night – an infomercial for the school – her thoughts and dreams drift into ghostly images of Michael Quinn (Liam Swift), another island youngster who has been declared dead after having jumped (or possibly been pushed) off a cliff while in the presence of Thomas (Dylan Chestnutt), a mean-spirited kid. Hannah was nearby when Michael disappeared.
How the girl comes to grips with that death (although the body is never found) pushes her out of puberty and forces her “father” to react in troubling ways. The sadness that bothers Hannah creates new alliances, particularly with Herb (William McDonough III), Michael’s distraught father and one of the island’s many lobstermen. She grabs a stern-man “job” on Herb’s small vessel, replacing the son swallowed by the sea. As she spends more time at sea, Jerry gets further agitated. Their bond rips apart with raw, unwarranted, even demonic riffs toward the girl, who is merely a confused teen who wonders why a broken promise can be considered a sin.
Occasionally the score (by Graham and Emily Dix Thomas), but more so the sound design, adds to the dramatic tension. Most of the time we see Hannah doing this and doing that in her daily routine (walking, assisting at the church, catching lobsters) interrupted by those haunting visions in Hannah’s head. These morph into more symbolic images, including Jonah and the Whale, and other undersea beasties before entering into full allegory mode. One image, which I’m sure the church-going viewers might better understand, finds most of the film’s characters positioned in a cliff-side setting. Among the minutiae: a working TV on its side, drying laundry, a lobster boat adrift on the rocks, open books, and a dead sheep, as Hannah (with a tentacle around her waist) cradles Michael. Thomas watches from a throne on a craggy overlook.
As a character- and emotionally-driven piece, the film survives its lackluster plot. The film’s title may allude to the legendary god of the sea, but Hannah seems fascinated by the Voyager 2 flyby of the eighth planet in our solar system during the time frame in which the film is set. Neptune is a more likely a stopping point between the cloistered past and the salvageable future of one girl’s life.
The film premiered last April at Ohio’s Ohio’s Athens Film Festival and Lewiston-Auburn’s Emerge Film Festival, played at Slamdance 2016, and has a solo screening today, Saturday, March 12th at the D.C. Independent Film Festival.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.