Director: Dia Taylor
Writers: Dia Taylor & Jack Brindelli
Cast: Brooke Moss, Kristian Hilton, Vincent Kos, and Loraine Fabb
Running time: 19 minutes
One of the outcomes of the pandemic will presumably be a willingness of cinema audiences to appreciate the fragility of the structures of contemporary capitalism and to entertain the notion that maybe life is not going to carry on in a continuum of the Great Normality for ever. So, maybe, the time is ripe for filmmakers to portray their visions of a post-apocalypse world or possibly, as the pandemic becomes endemic, audiences will want a return to and a celebration of the endurance of the Great Normality?
While it was produced largely before the pandemic, filmmaker Dia Taylor’s Little Miseries certainly seems to bank on the former. The staple of many a zombie film, we enter a world where a virus has decimated humanity – and who knows, while Covid-19 might not quite manage that, we may see far worse in years to come. Sadly, while there may well be a revival of pandemic horror in the wake of these last 15 months, it will not be kickstarted by this film.
In the making of Little Miseries, Taylor has shown an ability to assemble a competent production team. The cinematography from Ben Luck and Mark Kenfield is conservative but efficient, and Sebastian Bertoli does a reasonable job with the editing. I also enjoyed Alex Cseh’s soundtrack – it enhanced the atmosphere though it was somewhat overbearing at times. In spite of this, and the fact Little Miseries has an undeniably timely and compelling concept – of conflating the experience of the pandemic with a zombie movie – I had some serious reservations as to the end product, with a lot of things going terribly wrong in under 20 minutes.
The film opens with a standard trope of the post-apocalypse movie – we hear an On the Beach style radio message from someone bidding farewell to this cruel world, but which helpfully informs us that a third of the world’s population is gone, eaten by another third who have been infected by a virus which has turned its victims into cannibalistic monsters. All this is relayed to us as we see drone footage of a forested landscape – while from the cast’s accents, we can safely assume that this is somewhere in Australia.
We are then introduced to the film’s central characters – a young woman leading a man on a chain. Ashlyn (Brooke Moss) and Cole (Kristian Hilton) are a married couple – but only one is still human. Cole in chains because Ashlyn refuses to abandon hope of a cure, but obviously must keep him on a leash until that unlikely event occurs. The logistics of keeping an infectious partner in chains (supposedly for over three years) are left unexplored – and it might have been a more interesting topic to focus on. However, Little Miseries also does not make use of the extraordinary possibilities of a life lived with your partner chained like a dog, and instead Cole is simply a rather unimaginative mute animal presence.
Problems arise early on. Ashlyn comes across a young man in the woods. After a desultory conversation, Ashlyn for no discernible reason, shoots the man. We see Ashlyn feeding the chained Cole/Fido a meal. In a good piece of editing, showcasing the talents of editor Sebastian Bertoli, we see Cole in happier times, in tie and white linen shirt, eating out of a porcelain bowl – a winning touch which discombobulates the viewer. We cut back to the present and Ashlyn nagging Cole for always being a pig of an eater – something which might have been approached more playfully to give us a glimpse of the tenderness that has inspired her devotion to her ultimately deceased husband. Instead, suddenly a human heart is presented at Ashlyn’s feet. She picks it up, takes a bite and wretches. I am thinking this was intended as a shock device, but it only serves to confuse us. Are we to assume Cole would somehow be offended if his wife declined his kindly offering? Is his permanent animalism supposed to be more ambiguous than it comes across?
Ashlyn is woken by a stranger, a matriarchal figure called Cassie (Loraine Fabb). While Cassie is looking for her missing son, Ashlyn discovers Cole has escaped from his fetters. On Cassie’s suggestion, they journey to a nearby community, where Cassie lives, to get help to find Cole and the missing boy. The ramshackle encampment is a low-budget Mad Max redux, with less emphasis on heavy weaponry, though one of the male inhabitants does wear some bizarre body armour. Upon meeting the community’s leader, Bradley (Vincent Kos), would you believe it – he and Ashlyn knew each other, in the biblical sense. Ashlyn pointedly fingers her wedding ring at portentous moments to foreshadow this. At night, in the sleeping quarters, the inevitable happens – and the next day Bradley agrees to accompany Ashlyn and Cassie in looking for their lost loved ones, as the film canters toward its conclusion.
It is here where we should address the elephant in the room; the Jack Brindelli listed as co-writer above is indeed the Chief Editor of Indy Film Library. Presumably this was due to his knowledge of the zombie genre – though that does not seem to have helped much. I do not know how much my colleague contributed to the dialogue, but frankly he must have been asleep at the wheel. Watching Little Miseries, it seemed as though Neighbours was still being filmed after the apocalypse. The tone and ideological concerns of the characters’ interactions have the faux seriousness of a soap when dealing with the mundane – a seriousness which is unrelenting throughout.
This deprives us of some much-needed humour or irony, which for me has always been an essential element of the success of the zombie genre. I would guess that this is because the zombies are portrayed as virus victims, and in lieu of what his since come to pass, the filmmakers may have felt bound to steer clear of any humour. If so, I think this was the wrong call – zombies are ineffably ironic. Little Miseries is an apt title for an unremittingly dour experience.
Things are not helped by the performances of the actors in the main roles. It is refreshing to see a strong lead role given to a woman, but Moss puts in a limp performance. I am guessing that the director was asking for “enigmatic and saturnine” when it came to portraying a woman who had survived in the Badlands for three years, all the while caring for her zombie husband, but unfortunately the lead’s performance is so emphatically wooden that she comes across as merely arch and irritable.
Elsewhere, the script’s leaning on clichés sees us inflicted with an archetypal noble and selfless leader, Bradley (Vincent Kos), who is stilted and utterly lacking charisma – to put it bluntly, we are definitely not in Gregory Peck territory. The two actors to emerge comparatively unscathed are Fabb – who provides a reasonably efficient stereotype as Cassie, the dithering and diffident Mum – and Hilton as Cole; though Fido only has to grunt at or attack people, so that does not give much of an example of his range. If all else fails, possibly a career as one end of a pantomime horse beckons?
With that being said, the actors could justifiably blame the script. Kos, as Bradley, can only work with what he is given, and so obviously falls on his face when delivering the cod Shakespearean declaration: “I won’t risk the safety of the group BUT I will gladly risk my own.” This undermines the gritty realism the film seems to be going for, because nobody really talks like this.
Returning to the cinematography, meanwhile, competent as it might be, it errs too much on the side of caution. As we see from one teaser shot when we are shown a stunning night-time star-scape, the Milky Way in all its finery – a well caught landscape might have added some much-needed brio to the proceedings. As well constructed as many shots are, I was disappointed as to how stale and boring the natural world appears throughout the movie then. After three years freedom from the toll of a fossil fuel economy, I’d have thought Mother Nature would have been feeling pretty perky, as it famously does in The Last of Us franchise; but we do not see any wildlife and the natural flora all appears frankly suburban. A pity –
In the end though, probably the biggest problem with Little Miseries, is that it seems unconvinced or uncommitted to being any one particular thing. Taylor and co. have fallen into the trap that many aspiring filmmakers rush into – trying to over-ambitiously combine too may genres in one work. I ticked off zombie, romance, disaster, and morality play Western during my viewing. Perhaps the lengthy production cycle of this project (it seems to have taken around five years to put together) saw it snowball, picking up new ideas that did not fit along the way, but whatever the reason given that this is a relatively short feature film, it is not able to adequately develop any one of its separate themes.
For example, despite the banality of the dialogue in which it is framed, there is some genuinely interesting material relating to freedom of the individual versus responsibility for the well-being of the community in terms of the pandemic, but the director does not have time to develop it as it bumps into the time needed to portray Ashlyn and Bradley’s romance. There are unrefined raw materials here – but they are not distilled into anything especially coherent or engaging.
My advice to the talents behind this film would be to write Little Miseries off as a failed experiment and, for their next project, to stick with one genre into which they can channel their ambitions. In that case, they should be better positioned to produce an innovative and focused piece of work, using the constraints of that particular genre as a sounding board. My advice to my editor Jack Brindelli, meanwhile; don’t give up the day-job.