Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Jeff Baena
Screenplay: Jeff Baena
Runtime: 91 minutes
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon.
Plot: The delightful Life After Beth documents the return of girlfriend Beth from the grave, as a not quite there zombie and the consequences for her family and boyfriend Zach. Initially relieved to have her back, Zach begins to notice that things are not quite right with Beth, as she doesn’t seem to remember the circumstances of her death. Things are then further complicated when other beloved family members begin to return from the grave.
Review: Life After Beth is the directorial debut of screenwriter Jeff Baena, the writer behind the smart and funny I Heart Huckabees. The film shows that Baena’s previous success was no fluke, with a great concept, gentle but perfect script, and a host of veteran performances. The film is charming, and for a zombie film the stakes are surprisingly low throughout – playing like a cross between a teen coming-of-age meditation and a Charlie Kaufmann-inspired meditation on loss. Don’t let the zombie element scare you off – indeed, Life After Beth cleverly tackles those elements or consequences you don’t generally see in a zombie film, but once raised will colour your view of those films forever. After all, how does a family feel when their deepest loss is suddenly reversed?
The film delivers what the title promises, as girlfriend Beth meets her end off screen in the opening moments of the film. Boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan) is initially left to deal with his grief alone as his dysfunctional family (headed by a well cast Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines) are more begrudging than supportive, and security guard brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler) has the disposition of a Napoleon Dynamite with a crew cut and a Desert Eagle. Instead, Zach finds comfort in the arms of his girlfriend’s mother (a brilliant Molly Shannon) and father (an equally brilliant John C. Reilly); playing chess and smoking joints while discussing what they miss about Beth. When things suddenly go quiet, and they stop returning his calls, Zach is prompted to investigate – discovering Beth is back from the grave, and the family acting as if nothing happened. But all is not right – from Beth’s love of the attic and mud-based craft project, to her lost memory and super strength. From there it is a pleasure for the audience, who are waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There’s not much else of substance to Life After Beth, but that’s fine because the film aims to be a gentle exploration of an interesting concept – one that other films like Shawn of the Dead have glancingly mentioned (think of fate Nic Frost’s Ed at the close of that film), but never really dealt with. It is natural to assume that after a great loss you’d want that person back no matter what the terms, but the film does a deft job of explaining what those terms might mean. Much humour and light sentiment is packed in between the slow realisations that dawn on Zach, without bogging down the overall tone or pace of the film. Aubrey Plaza’s performance is possibly the bubbliest she has ever been, and the role is one she seems to relish throughout. Many details of the relationship between Beth and Zach are hinted at, and the film is smart about choosing what to disclose and what to leave up to the imagination.
Ultimately, the relief of Beth’s return cannot last and as we all know, for any stolen moment there comes a reckoning. That reckoning occasions some of the most hilarious moments of the film; including a great argument between the Orfman family and their home’s previous occupants.
There’s not a lot more to this film; but for an hour or two of honest entertainment, it isn’t missed. Life After Beth deserves praise for finding new corners to explore in a tired genre, and I’m excited to see what Baena turns his hand to next.
Rating: Three stars.