Review by William J. Hammon, of the I Actually Paid to See This blog
The coming-of-age buddy comedy is nothing new. When done right, it’s one of the most consistently rewarding subgenres in all of cinema. You can rattle off any number of classics, ranging from Clerks and American Pie to modern masterworks like Booksmart. Part of the reason these movies work is a combination of really clever writing, relatable characters, and usually a condensed timeline to focus the story, say a single day at work, or a social event like a party or prom.
Writer/Director Keith Bearden appears to challenge all those conventions with Antarctica. Unlike the quirky standards of these types of films, Antarctica subverts expectations pretty much the entire way through, while still keeping things grounded in the most important aspect, the relationship between the lead characters transitioning into adulthood.
Set in an upper-class suburb – the kind where a high school Halloween party requires a bouncer to check invitations – the film opens with its two stars, Kat and Janet (played by Chloë Levine and Kimie Muroya respectively) lying on the floor surrounded by Chinese food and complaining about their ennui as the only people in their school who don’t suck. From the very first frame Bearden seems to fly in the face of the familiar tropes, as the writing feels intentionally anodyne to the point of being pretentious. Immediately we know these girls are the best of friends, but they’re inside their own little bubble and don’t realize that they’re more like everyone else than they’d ever admit.
This connection works at the highest levels, and at times the film can feel unfocused when the pair are split off for their own individual stories. This is another reversal of the genre trappings, as the plot takes place over an entire senior year, with major checkpoints around the seasons and holidays rather than a more succinct timeline. No matter what Janet and Kat do, they’re at their best when they’re together. Even if they do or say something you don’t agree with or act in ways that don’t necessarily make sense, their rapport is instantly understandable, giving the audience something solid to latch onto. It’s also to the film’s credit that Levine and Muroya give very strong performances to reinforce the bond. The roles feel lived-in, and their friendship is not perfect, with the pair often arguing and reconciling throughout the course of the film, just like any other group of long-term friends would do. There’s never a moment where you doubt that these two girls have been friends for more than a decade, and that’s not always an easy feat to pull off.
When the two are separated, things can go off the rails a bit, because their isolation further fuels the absurdity going on around them. My best guess is that this is where the title comes from, because when Kat and Janet have their own side journeys, they’re so alone that it must feel like the most cold, desolate place on Earth.
As to the story, when a momentary indiscretion leads to Kat getting bombarded from all sides, Janet offers the love and support we would all expect from a coming-of-age film, a connection and plot that was expertly displayed earlier this year in the terrific Never Rarely Sometimes Always. But once again, expectations are thrown out the window, as the moment of bonding becomes the catalyst to separate the two for basically the rest of the film. Kat endures an onslaught of shaming while Janet meets her first love, who may be a drug-induced hallucination, thanks to her being medicated by the state for the crime of defending Kat.
And that’s the third major element that Bearden attacks in this film, the humor. Most films of this type are filled with witty, nuanced commentary or funny cultural references and in-jokes. No such thing here. Instead, we get a farcical level of satire about what could be best described as a right-wing utopia, where Bill Clinton was a literal traitor to America (the late Clark Middleton is excellent as a Tea Party history teacher), slapping a boy for grabbing a girl’s butt is assault on the girl’s part, and having sex underage once gets you branded as an addict. It’s way over the top, but I guarantee you that just about every woman who watches this will relate to at least one of the travails that Kat and Janet have to face.
It’s an odd, almost bold choice in tone, because most of the time absurdity and farce are used for comic effect, but not in this film. If anything, it appears the intent is to use the satire to make the audience as angry as possible, and if so, it’s a successful gamble. I think there were about three instances where I actually laughed, but I was definitely righteously angry for a good portion of the 80-minute runtime. Whatever you think this movie is going to be, it’s probably not, and I think that’s what the filmmakers are going for here.
This is very much to the film’s credit. Your mileage may vary on how much you “enjoy” a film like Antarctica, but it’s worth seeing for the sheer ambition on display. Between Levine and Muroya’s stellar, fully committed performances and Bearden’s direction, you can’t deny that this film is attempting something very new and original with a familiar formula. It may not always work, but it’s laudable to take such a dangerous chance with a movie like this. And in the end, that might be the ultimate lesson and true coming-of-age moment. Reaching adulthood is about not only getting out of one’s comfort zone, but shedding it entirely at certain points. If nothing else, the film – and Kat and Janet as characters – definitely take that risk, and it’s a risk worth taking.