Published Nov 06, 2015There's nothing particularly novel about the premise of Jeremy Thomas's sophomore feature, Ally Was Screaming: Best friends Nole (Charlie Carrick) and Seth (Giacomo Baessato) find a lottery ticket with a complement of other goodies, and contemplate whether or not to share it with Casey (Camille Sullivan), the entitled party. It's a standard morality tale about greed and human nature, taking more of a grounded, philosophical approach to the familiar noir premise, but there are a few things about this clever little black comedy that distinguish it from its peers.
Casey is the sister of the titular Ally (Arielle Rombough). When the film opens, Ally is dead, and Seth and Nole are helping Casey sift through her belongings when they happen upon the lottery ticket. They vacillate between keeping it for themselves or cutting in Ally's sister, who is handling the estate, and since there are visual markers on the ticket that link them to their dead friend, they risk imprisonment if they don't find a legitimate way to manipulate the situation to their favour. Complicating this further is the potential claim that Ally's abusive husband — who is in prison — might have on the money.
This setup does strain credulity somewhat. Though the visual markers link the ticket back to Ally, the likelihood of the lottery office noting doodles in a press release are extremely unlikely. But, of course, the heightened paranoia of Seth and Nole is a contributing factor to the progression of the story.
As noted, this is less a complex, brooding noir — aesthetically, it looks like an episode of Corner Gas as directed by Vincenzo Natali — than a psychological character drama about rationalizing abject behaviour. Most of the film focuses its attention on the many justifications Seth and Nole have for potentially, "humanely," killing their best friend's kind, morally righteous sister Casey so they can get the money. Interestingly enough, charity is a large component of this discussion ("If we give a third of the money to an African charity, it'll be like we're saving 40,000 lives just for sacrificing one"), adding a very shrewdly considered layer of dialogue about the motivations behind philanthropy.
Jeremy Thomas also compares this premise to veganism (of all things). A secondary storyline about animal cruelty arises, forcing Seth and Nole to justify their love of meat despite being horrified by the images of terrified pigs being killed in a slaughterhouse. What's crucial here, and reiterated throughout the many long discussions about how to handle the situation, is the way people rationalize and justify their self-serving behaviour. How these discussions and topics are addressed and analyzed is Ally Was Screaming's saving grace. The film's depiction of how its characters choose between the wishes of a dead friend and servicing their own short-and-long-term needs suggests that this low-key Canadian art film understands human nature well.
Where Ally struggles is in servicing the basic demands of a story. Seth and Nole, for example, are interchangeable; their discussions don't expose any greater character complexities beyond the central moral discussion, while their abrasive, borderline psychotic boss (the one that gets excited while talking about slaughterhouses) is such an over-the-top caricature that it's actually uncomfortable to watch.
In many ways, Thomas's singular focus on the central thesis (along with an overwrought score) both makes and breaks this above-average Canadian feature. There's too little basic human idiosyncrasy or natural intimacy, and everything is too pointed and analytical, too far removed from the basic experience of interaction or emotional dynamics. Without that crucial emotional component, it's hard to care who does what or gets what. Even Casey, who is written as "nice," should be able to earn some audience investment as a potential victim of a greed-driven crime, but she's so saintly that she's not believable as a human being.
With a little more balance between the emotional and the intellectual, Ally Was Screaming could have been the incisive and ideologically challenging gem it wants to be. As it stands, it still inspires thought and discussion without alienating or patronizing, even if it's hard to feel invested otherwise.
(Pacific Northwest Pictures)