Writer/director Andrew Jara’s The Empty Space does a lot of things right...
...It tackles anxiety, depression and grief with surprising originality, providing a refreshing take on the complex emotional pain tied to loss. In many ways, it’s a fitting tale for a world mourning the far too many lives lost to a global pandemic. The film’s opening mirrors our collective mental state as we isolated ourselves from each other. Of course, this film is not about a global pandemic and I won’t focus too much on the parallels, but I will say a protagonist not wanting to answer the door and asking the delivery person to just leave the food outside feels very familiar. Jara’s impressive script is more focused on an isolated incident that ripples through the core of one character and her subsequent journey through the minefield of trauma and anxiety.
Aimee (Valerie Alene) is a 20 something living in El Paso, Texas who recently lost her partner Noah (Joe Sinclitco) in a tragic event. The film is about her journey to acceptance, even though she feels like she still sees him or is constantly flashing back to the moment she lost him. She spends most of the film in a yellow beanie - the last item that he touched as he placed on her head. It is a physical representation of her inability to let go. She eventually joins a recovery group where she finds others who are also suffering as they try to cope with their own loss or inability to function in society. The story takes a very metaphysical, almost Pet Sematary like, turn when Noah actually does reappear. At first things seem normal but slowly it starts to go awry, then ramps up to a shocking yet satisfying conclusion. Impressively, the story never strays from its theme of the hopelessness, loneliness, anger and guilt that comes from losing someone and attempting to find a semblance of normalcy in whatever comes next. Jara’s messaging makes clear that no matter how desperately we want it to, it is not possible for life to return to the way it was. Conveying this universal human experience through a ghost story is one of several areas in which The Empty Space shines.
One of the coolest things about this movie is that it was filmed on location in El Paso, Texas, a town that, if it gets any exposure at all, it’s generally not good. It’s Jara’s hometown and personally one of my favorite cities in the United States. So to see it shown in a positive light despite the heavy and supernatural context was a delight. It’s also a constant reminder that once this pandemic is over whatever city you’re in can tell the story you need. You don’t have to be in LA or New York to make your movie and sometimes that hometown flair can add something to your film. The Empty Space could be set anywhere, but the distinct nature of the city lends itself to the story and works wonders visually. Some of the best moments occur in the scenes where Aimee is wandering through the city on foot, cluing us into the isolation she is feeling while experiencing such a vibrant and cultured backdrop of a city with a lot of hope in it.
Sadly, with all that The Empty Space has going for it: great script, sense of purpose, a wonderful and often overlooked backdrop - It is struggling in one department so much that it diminishes how powerful a film it could have been. That is the acting. From the leads (though they are the strongest two) down to all the minor parts there just is no cohesion and the performances feel stilted and off. At times it’s like different cast members are in completely different films, let alone the same scene. I have intentionally not named the actors, aside from the leads, because I don’t want to target anyone specific or be mean spirited about any particular performance, as I know every person was doing their best to bring Jara’s vision to life. It’s hard for me to say it, the performances brought the enjoyment of this film way down. It’s why if you just look at the rating below, and don’t read the words you will assume this review is just all negative, there is so much to love about this film.
Hopefully, Andrew Jara continues to provide such talented scripts, and eventually, a budget comes his way to hire the stellar cast that would have made this movie soar. I still recommended it because underneath the poor performances and some camera work that could be improved, it is still a thoughtful tale of morality and dealing with loss. If this film finds it way near you, check it out.
The Empty Space recently played the Sacramento film festival and is currently on the film festival circuit.
By Justin Drabek