Studio: Flatiron Film Company
Director: Jimmy Loweree
Writer: Jimmy Loweree, Jake Moreno
Producer: Parker J. Johal, Jimmy Loweree, Michaelangelo Covino
Stars: Erin Way, Eric Matheny, Ryan Smale, Stephanie Scholz
After a woman’s unborn baby inexplicably disappears from her womb, her brother and her husband take her to a cabin in the woods for a week of recovery.
According to a statistic from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children cited near the start of the movie, Cesarean theft has accounted for 20% of all violent infant kidnappings in the United States since 1983. “Absence” jumpstarts its plot with the original idea of using fetal abduction to drive its setup, but then uses the concept as a fuel cell for creating a routine, and rather dull, “found footage” film. There are life signs suggesting that certain aspects may have developed into some semblance of a unique story, yet nothing quite gels above being run-of-the-mill.
Seven months into her pregnancy, Liz awakes one morning with an empty womb, unable to recall events from the previous night. Doctors are at a loss for an explanation. Police suspect that Liz and her husband Rick possibly aborted the baby on their own. Months later, the couple decides to escape the painful situation and the intrusive news reporters by getting away to a family cabin in the woods.
For a “film-based” college project, Liz’s brother Evan decides to make a documentary about his sister’s recovery while tagging along on the couple’s retreat. Evan comes from that mold of typical “found footage” characters whose only purpose in being a budding filmmaker is to provide a flimsy explanation for the constant recording of every mundane event possible. He is also from that mold of “found footage” documentarian unable to hold a camera steady, to frame a shot sensibly, or to keep anything in focus. Let’s hope that the letter grade for his class assignment is not dependent upon his camera operating skills.
As the character that eats most of the screentime, despite being on the other side of the lens, Evan is insufferable. His personality is played as being a joking prankster, briefly justified as owing to a desire to keep Liz’s sinking spirits high. Except that the constant ribbing at his brother-in-law Rick’s expense is as insulting as it is unfunny. His jokes are never good-natured and neither is he. Evan is always annoying and is never relatable, which makes his centrality to the plot very problematic.
Conversely, Erin Way puts forth two convincing scenes as Liz where she delivers on-camera confessionals about the mysterious fetal abduction and her own emotional response to the ongoing trauma. She is well cast as a psychologically broken expectant mother. The downside to her strong portrayal is that these scenes highlight how much dramatic impact might have been delivered had the film spent more time on the stresses of a missing child, police investigation, and ongoing media scrutiny, rather than rote conventions of “found footage” and shots of Evan urinating into a toilet.
These aspects of the mysterious womb-napping that could have brought “Absence” a distinctive edge are given only cursory mentions. “Absence” instead supplants human drama with the same tired scenes of market shopping, road trips, and “get to know you” moments cookie-cut from the Found Footage 101 textbook.
That textbook recipe is followed to the letter by gripping the coal of the story tight enough to turn it into a diamond. Occasionally, the movie’s iron fist lets only the smallest mite of charcoal dust escape its fingers to crawl the plot forward at a snail’s pace. Eventually, the ho-hum scenes of average daily life make a little room for an otherworldly threat and the hint of a local conspiracy involving the unborn child’s abduction.
Like the rest of the film’s more interesting elements though, possible subplots involving that conspiracy go unexplored. A love interest is introduced for Evan who clearly knows more about what is happening than she lets on, but she later falls by the wayside. Liz shows a flash of possible instability and “Absence” flirts with the notion that neither the police nor the media believe that she is uninvolved in the fetal abduction. Her brother and her husband, on the other hand, take her story at face value and leave that potentially compelling mystery to die on the vine, even as a red herring.
When all is said and done, “Absence” plants the seeds of taking “found footage” in potentially new and interesting directions before leaving that garden completely untended. The film settles for tilling from the same stony soil that has already been harvested dry by better constructed and more entertaining stabs at the genre.
The road to “Absence” is paved with good intentions. There is a sense that the filmmakers set themselves a goal of making an atypical tale of horror that was initially grounded in a tangible mystery that also delved into the realm of extraterrestrial mythology. It is just that the format they chose for its telling destined the story to be as formulaic as innumerable other “found footage” entries, and banished the film to an exile in mediocrity.
NOTE: There is a mid-credits scene.
Review Score: 40