At heart, every post-apocalyptic movie is a bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Apocalypse stories let us revel in the idea of replacing all the burdens of modern society with simpler, more visceral problems, like avoiding zombie bites or fighting off road-warrior gangs. But most apocalypses keep the survivors pretty busy. For every quiet apocalypse film like On The Beach, there are dozens of manic ones like 28 Days Later or 2012, where the world comes apart abruptly and explosively, and the protagonists are constantly on the run for their lives. It’s rare to see an apocalypse movie like the gentle indie science fiction drama Bokeh, where the threats are minimal and abstract, and the characters mostly have to worry about how to spend their time after the world ends. The lack of physical crisis leaves room for emotional crisis, though, and a lot of time for Bokeh’s characters to ask the big philosophical and religious questions about what an apocalypse really means.
Bokeh starts with a young couple, Jenai (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) and Riley (Matt O’Leary), on vacation in Iceland, where they make out under waterfalls, soak in hot springs, and drink in the scenery on walking tours. Then, just a few minutes into the film, a mysterious green light pulses in the night sky, and Jenai and Riley wake up to discover that everyone else is gone, and they’re alone in Reykjavik. They’re both unnerved at first, but soon Riley is celebrating the freedom underlying most zombie movies: he can go anywhere he likes, and take anything he wants. He can even act out in minor, goofy ways, like taking a shopping cart for an in-store joy ride, or grabbing an unoccupied SUV and tearing through the streets. From the start, though, Jenai is more withdrawn about being alone in the world. While Riley’s learning to make his own gingerbread lattes at the local coffee shop, she’s trying to sleep through the apocalypse, and as time stretches on, she gets increasingly agitated and unnerved, until their differing approaches reach a series of crisis points.
The arguments they have, and the fallout from them, are the only crisis points in Bokeh. Aliens and cannibals never crop up to change the story’s parameters, and viewers never learn any more about what happened than the characters know. Debuting writer-directors Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan openly invite viewers to imagine their own reactions to this Twilight Zone scenario — whether they’d loathe it or embrace it, and what they’d do with endless freedom and endless loneliness. For once, the audience has time to contemplate this question without monsters interrupting the action.
But a couple of major flaws undercut the narrative. Orthwein and Sullivan reveal virtually nothing about their protagonists’ former lives, and they’re both simply drawn characters without a lot of nuance. There’s some powerful emotional impact in the idea that this extreme situation pushes them both to their own extremes, stripping away their personalities until they each reach a basic level. But in practice, since they come from such a tabula rasa starting point, it’s hard to track whether Riley and Jenai are really changing as people.
And those changes become redundant as Orthwein and Sullivan keep returning to the same pattern: Riley explores, builds, and innovates, while Jenai picks fights or storms off. There’s no escaping the unpleasantness of the dynamic here: Riley is the cool dude who takes things in stride and looks to the future, and Jenai is the weak, emotional albatross hanging around his neck, clinging to the past by endlessly checking her email and crying over old voicemails. She’s endlessly petty and tiresome, whether she’s throwing a fit because he isn’t eating their yogurt in strict expiration date order, or responding to an expansive fairy tale with a flat, dull, “We’re out of water.” Watching Riley try and fail to please her is exhausting and miserable.
To the degree that Bokeh does escape this dynamic, it’s largely because of the emotional heft of Monroe and O’Leary’s performances. Both of them deliver the occasional dud of a line-reading, but they also bring across some incredibly strong emotion, especially in the long, silent scenes as they explore their newly barren world. Jenai is written as an erratic, difficult nag, but Monroe brings her pain and fear to the surface, making her as sympathetic as the script allows. And O’Leary’s frustration is so obviously, heavily tinged with love and worry that it steers the audience away from just resenting Jenai for holding him back. He’s desperate to make her see the beauty in the world, and at times, the film pulls viewers along in that goal with him.
It helps that Bokeh is such a physically stunning movie. Shooting in Iceland was a stroke of brilliance: Sullivan and Orthwein shot the movie in June, when the sun is out for 23 hours a day, so they were able to get tremendous footage of a deserted Reykjavik, shot at 3AM, but looking like it’s noon. Small-budget indie films often have to limit their scope and their sights, but Bokeh takes in enough of the protagonists’ deserted, lonely world to feel completely convincing. And the directors, along with director of photography Joe Lindsay, capture the staggering beauty of Iceland’s waterfalls and glaciers, its springs and caves and cliffs.
Early on, Jenai fusses miserably over how they’re going to get home, and then neither of them brings it up again. It feels like a missing piece in their frustration with each other, and with the film’s backstory — where is Jenai’s home, and what does it mean to her? — but it’s still no surprise that they stay where they are. As they contemplate whether, as Jenai puts it, “God got impatient” with the human race, or as Riley says, “We could be a statistical anomaly. We could be the world’s last rounding error,” they’re surrounded by territory that already feels like heaven on earth.
In the press notes, the writer-directors explain that “bokeh” is a photographic term for the part of a photo that’s out of focus, the artful background that helps define the foreground. In their film, the science fiction scenario of a silent apocalypse is part of that background. It’s not important why everyone disappeared; what’s important is which emotions the characters foreground for themselves, as they embrace their new circumstances. There’s a lot of fantasy in the usual end-of-the-world scenarios, but there’s a lot of horror there as well. Bokeh asks which of those reactions is more appropriate, and how they both play out. It’s a gentle story, as apocalypses go, but even without monsters, it becomes a painful, emotional question of strength and survival.
Bokeh opens in limited theatrical release on March 24. Check here for a list of theaters. It will also be available simultaneously on iTunes and VOD.