Aside from having the most excellent title* Doug Dillaman’s debut feature Jake is lively, thought-provoking, and at the better end of New Zealand cinema. This dark-edged comedy—whose edge transitions eventually into its centre—details the story of a listless man in his 30s who suddenly finds himself ‘replaced’ and has to come to terms with his situation in the best way he can. A ‘sci-fi’ film in the broadest sense Dillaman’s story strikes its own riffs on a range of well-worn genre staples, such as which is replacement horror/thriller à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers or identity erasure as seen in Liam Neeson vehicle Unknown.
Well written and paced Jake maintains good momentum even as its narrative tone and structure morphs beneath your feet. The production is visually engaging with a range interesting POVs and camera movement that works well and reflects the director’s cinematic interests (Sorrentino anyone?) The cast almost uniformly displays decent chops with Jacob/VJ (Jason Fitch) in particular engendering more than the level of empathy demanded by the film’s narrative. Comic relief character ‘D’—genre trope staple ‘the amusing/wise stoner’ (e.g. Fran Kranz’s Marty from The Cabin in the Woods)—is both well penned and very well acted by Tainui Tukiwaho who evinces the perfect casually absurd tone which counterpoints what’s happening around him. If there’s one character that jarred a little for me it was that of the acting coach Stefan (Campbell Cooley). Stefan is played a little OTT which, although it services the comedic aspect of the film somewhat—e.g. Stefan directly addresses an acting fault which he is displaying—it is difficult to tell how intentional this is, and if so whether this distracts more than it adds.
The soundtrack on the film is pretty standout. Local and US indie artists provide a surfeit of tasty tunes whilst Chicago-based composer Paul Velat (with a little supplementary help) works up a score composed of excellent, slightly dissonant soundscapes to usher in or underscore shots within scenes. Jake displays a polish and assurance quite impressive for a first feature and all on an insanely modest budget. Thumbs up to the director and the Hybrid team for creating an engaging original film which stands apart from the bulk of local cinema.
*Actually it is a bit weird having your name repeated SO many times in relatively quick succession but I guess that minor piece of induced paranoia is not something 99.9% of audiences will need worry about!
[Disclosure: I personally know the director, but was not in any way involved in the production of this film]