Independent movies, by their nature, tend to tell smaller stories that speak to specific experiences. As a viewer, this means that you might be rolling the dice when you watch one, because it might not be an experience that speaks to you. But there’s something truly special about those times when an indie film does resonate because you feel connected to it in ways that you never expected when you started watching. Such was the case for me and After Midnight, a love story by way of creature feature from Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella.
Funnily enough, on paper the premise isn’t one that immediately calls to mind aspects of my own past. Hank (Gardner, who stars in addition to writing/co-directing) is a heavy-drinking hunter/bar owner in small-town Georgia. I grew up in Pennsylvania, don’t drink, and have been hunting once in my life. I’ve also never woken up one morning to find out my partner of ten years has taken off, as Hank does when he finds a note written by his girlfriend, Abby (Brea Grant), cryptically saying that she needs time to herself.
And I’ve certainly never had a mysterious creature start lurking on my property on the very same day my partner leaves, which is definitely the case for poor Hank. The bulk of the film follows Hank as he tries to figure out what this beast really is and what’s become of Abby, as Gardner plays with our sense of time by bouncing back and forth between flashbacks of better days and present-day scenes of Hank drunkenly brooding, commiserating with friends, and fending off whatever stalks him on his porch.
There’s a playfulness to Gardner and Stella’s approach here, as the flashbacks and present-day scenes crash into one another so quickly that we can only get a sense of what we’re looking at by the length of Hank’s facial hair. There’s a dry, defeated humor to Hank’s plight that belies something more ominous simmering under the surface. We’re left to wonder just why Abby’s disappearance seems to have coincided with this creature’s arrival. Is it real? Did it snatch Abby away? Or (and this was my original theory) is it Hank’s subconscious trying to tell him something about what’s really become of her? After all, we start to get a sense in those flashbacks that perhaps things hadn’t been going as well as Hank would have originally thought.
So to this point, I thought I had a decent handle on where the film was going, and I enjoyed it well enough. But then Gardner threw one hell of a curveball when Abby returns as abruptly as she left. It turns out, she’d been in Miami because she felt like she was suffocating in a town that she’d intended to leave a decade earlier and only stayed in because she fell for Hank.
This revelation comes out during an argument that I probably could have written myself, because it’s one that I’ve had more than once. My wife and I grew up in very different circumstances. As part of a military family, she bumped around a lot, spending only a few years in any one place until she got to high school. I, on the other hand, lived in one house until I was 18 and spent 35 years in the same 100-mile radius. In 15 years together, we’ve clashed repeatedly over her desire to continue seeing what else the world has to offer versus my need to stay connected to the only area I ever considered home.
So when Abby lays it all out for Hank, confessing her fears that their relationship can’t survive its current trajectory, I can tell you from personal experience that both Grant and Gardner absolutely nail the emotions of the scene. Grant has most of the dialogue as she pours her soul out to Hank. Her weariness radiates off the screen as she talks through the realization that if she’s going to get what she deserves out of life, it might have to be without Hank. Gardner, on the other hand, spends most of the scene frustratingly quiet. I’ve been similarly quiet in these discussions, trying to process some very reasonable concerns that I was either too scared or too stubborn to address in the moment.
For me, this is the scene where the tumblers fell into place and the whole movie opens up. The beast no longer represents the threat of what happened to Abby, but that fear of stepping into the unknown that Hank’s never been willing to truly face. Because I can tell you, it’s a terrifying feeling that, if ignored, will continue to lurk in the periphery and periodically wreak havoc. And it’s a fear that’s about more than a change of location. It’s a fear of growth, a fear of evolution, and a fear of failure.
But making those leaps is also what life is all about, so as someone who finally confronted those fears after (looks at watch) a shade under a decade and a half, I absolutely love how the film resolves Hank’s conflict. Because ultimately, it’s Hank’s issues that have contaminated his relationship with Abby, and as he resolves those issues, he’s able to handle that pesky beast in a way that I won’t spoil here, but it’s done in a way that combines both the figurative and the literal and had me grinning from ear to ear.
In the end, I suppose it’s not an earth-shattering revelation to find out that a movie resonated with me. That’s kind of the point of most art, after all. But it’s still a good feeling, and one more likely felt through independent movies that aren’t necessarily concerned with putting as many butts in the seats as possible. If Gardner and Stella tried to get Universal or Warner Brothers to make their movie about a fear of change manifesting as a literal monster in someone’s backyard, I’d probably never have the chance to gush about it like I am now. But by going indie, they got to put their little beast out into the world, and my life is better for it.
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