As I was browsing the production notes for writer/director Jaclyn Bethany's The Falling World, I experienced one of those "Aha!" moments when Bethany noted Whit Stillman as one of her cinematic inspirations for this LGBTQ genre piece that weaves together a cinematic tapestry of improvisation, disciplined humor, thriller, and even hints of horror bubbling underneath the surface.
At a mere 72-minutes in length, The Falling World tells its tale quickly but patiently and with a tension-filled congeniality that builds over the course of the film as characters becoming increasingly compelling and suspicions grow. The story centers around a group of law students getting away for fall break by escaping to a secluded upstate New York chapel turned residency. This is a group of tight-knit friends it would seem with the exception being Lark (Ayumi Patterson), a newbie to the law school and a newbie to this group though they seem to welcome her with open arms.
It is revealed that the last time the group gathered here one of them, Jill (Anna Crivelli), went missing. It's a mystery for which everyone pleads ignorance, though the tension that fills the screen leads us to believe that there are secrets being kept.
The Falling World feels like a film that Whit Stillman would make if Stillman would ever immerse himself in the world of mystery/thrillers, though I must admit I'm hesitant to refer to The Falling World as a thriller as it defies that genre definition in a myriad of ways. This is not a film for everyone for sure, though I have a feeling that those who embrace it will seriously embrace it.
The characters here are intriguing. Hadley, played sublimely by executive producer Isabelle Chester, is front-and-center here as it is her family that owns this mansion though it's worth noting that this is very much an ensemble piece. Jonathan Kaplan is Professor Bennett, rumored to be in love with Hadley and who also happens to be Jill's brother. Arthur (Michael Rabe) is practically a ball of tension, Baxter (Joshua David Robinson) is rather freely expressive, and Maeve (Kaley Ronayne) is remarkably intriguing from the moment she appears on-screen. The most impressive, perhaps, would be Lucy Walters as Hadley's elder sister Margot, whose performance gives the film a desperately needed emotional resonance.
Led largely by a female production team, The Falling World is an ambitious, thoughtful, and often quite captivating motion picture even if it doesn't completely gel and even if the performances are a tad hit-and-miss in terms of tonal consistency. The key players, fortunately, are quite remarkable here including a mesmerizing Lucy Walters and truly captivating turns by both both Ayumi Patterson and Isabelle Chester. All three of them had me rushing over to IMDB to check out their filmographies.
The Falling World is a far more complex film than you might expect from a 72-minute film that at first seems like a rather straightforward drama/thriller. It's a film that demands that you pay attention to it and listen to what's going on between the lines. Lensing by Kenny Suleimanagich has both a classic thriller vibe and an immersive feeling that amplifies the anxiety one feels watching the tension build. Kit Sheridan's production design supports Bethany's slowly unfolding story and Caroline Sebastian's costumes magnify the sense that nearly everything here is a facade of sorts.
To say much else about The Falling World would be unjust. It's a film that should be experienced, though it is a film that practically begs to be seen in its entirety as the slow-building character development and story can feel aggravating in the film's opening moments. For those with patience, Jaclyn Bethany rewards that patience with an intelligent, honest, and insightful film that has already been picked up by indie distributor Gravitas Ventures for a fall 2022 release.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic