Review by Sean Boelman
IFC releases some of the best genre cinema of any given year through its IFC Midnight label, but Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s Vesper is being released through their main branch. The reason why is that it shouldn’t be relegated to being genre cinema because it’s an ambitious independent sci-fi film, the likes of which we rarely see attempted — much less succeed.
Set in the future after the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, Vesper follows a young girl who, having lived alone for years with her paralyzed father, discovers a mysterious stranger in the woods and decides to help her, changing her life in ways that she can never come back from. The film’s biggest shortcoming is that its story feels overwhelmingly generic.
We’ve seen plenty of movies about the child surviving on a post-apocalyptic Earth using their wits alone, as they fight against the corruption that has taken over the remaining adults on the planet, soon discovering that the child is the key to the future survival of humanity. It might not be the smartest sci-fi flick you’ve seen, but it’s a damn entertaining one.
Still, it would take someone heartless to not sympathize with and root for the eponymous protagonist. We want her to win against her sadistic, blood-peddling uncle and share her knowledge with the rest of the world. Vesper puts a nice, female-led spin on these tropes, although it largely skirts around the gender-adjacent themes it could have explored.
Young actress Raffiella Chapman has a very natural screen presence, able to lead the film, stealing the spotlight from her more seasoned character actor co-stars. Eddie Marsan plays the main antagonist, playing the same two-faced snake he usually plays. But the most interesting performance is Richard Brake’s, who was cast against type as the benevolent father, showing that the horror icon has an unexpected amount of range.
The level of immersion that Buozyte and Samper are able to pull off in this film despite its scale is absolutely extraordinary. The world that they build in the movie feels extremely lived-in, as if it has a mythos that has been fleshed out for years even though this is the extent of the media around it. Somehow, they managed to avoid the tropes and genericisms that often come along with indie sci-fi and created a world that feels unique enough to work.
Of course, much of what allows this world to work is the visual effects, which are certainly impressive for the budget that this film was working with. There are a few moments in which the CGI begins to show that the filmmakers didn’t really have much money to work with, but for the most part, they rely on practical aspects like the production design and cinematography to draw the viewer into this future.
Vesper is certianly a feat in that it takes the very minimal resources that it had at its disposal to make an immersive sci-fi drama. The execution allows it to stack up favorably against some bigger-budget sci-fi movies, which is pretty damn impressive.
Vesper screened at the 2022 edition of Fantastic Fest, which runs September 22-29 in Austin, TX and September 29-October 4 virtually.