SXSW Review – If You Were the Last
If You Were the Last
Sometimes a SXSW screening is chosen just because you love the actors involved, regardless of everything else. The choices do not always work out, and you see a not-so-great film. In the case of If You Were the Last (2023), the opposite happens, and it becomes one of your favorites of the film fest, if not the favorite.
Director Kristian Mercado is one of SXSW’s favorite sons and has kicked his latest project up a notch, using a screenplay by Angela Bourassa. Adam (Anthony Mackie) and Jane (Zoe Chao) are two NASA astronauts stuck in their ship, drifting endlessly somewhere between Saturn and Jupiter because their navigation and communications systems broke. We meet both characters three years after they left Earth on a mission. There was a third astronaut, medical officer Benson, who at some point died and now exists solely as a skeleton in uniform and functions as a silent confidant.
Based on that film description, you might imagine that Adam and Jane are existing in a dire strait, Alien-esque environment, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Their ship is self-sustaining, and their lives are pretty comfortable, except for the whole being stranded in space thing. They even have films and music to enjoy. Jane is preoccupied with trying to fix the ship, while Adam is trying to propagate a blueberry marijuana plant, all the while being able to listen to their favorite jams.
Jane and Adam’s relationship is one of being best friends; they are each other’s sounding board, emotional support, and unlikely dance partners. In the middle of a stretching session, Adam brings up the idea of sleeping with each other more as a debate topic than an actual proposition. A days (or maybe weeks) long discussion of the subject ensues. There is already an intimacy between them, but broaching sleeping together has brought up questions of fidelity (both are married) and emotions that could get mixed up when sex enters the relationship, even if they decide it’s only friends with benefits. There is no going back if they choose to do it. They also realize that they may never be rescued or go back home.
Their sexual frustrations have been satiated well enough, but the discussion of sex has brought up other things they miss, like skin-to-skin contact, spooning, and oral sex. There is a noticeable increase in the sexual tension between the two, leading to the crossing of that barrier between them—they decide to do it.
The film and its premise work well because of the chemistry between Anthony Mackie and Chloe Chao. They have a casual way of bantering with each other that convincingly portrays two people who have made the best of their situation and keep fun and laughter a part of that situation. It is such a slight pivot from best friends to lovers that they make it look easy and not a complicated scenario full of potential regret and awkward outcomes. Plainly, this film does not work if you can’t believe that these characters really do like each other and could fall in love, and that is down to these two extraordinary actors.
Dance is an integral part of the film. Adam and Jane choreograph dances to songs for fun and stress relief. Maybe unwittingly, the dances become a connection between the two, something that translates to the audience, letting them see that this is not a surface-level friendship. It is profound for both, physically and emotionally. Dance becomes even more important later on in the story.
Reviewing this film can not ignore the unique art direction and animated craft-like sequences that fill in the world of Adam and Jane. I will assume that there was no budget for this film to realistically fill in the space sequences. The go around is making everything look like a mod podge of construction paper and something your kid might make in elementary school. To be honest, it was a little off-putting at the beginning, but I began to appreciate the environment and the effects it created. It did not take away from the story but added a bit of whimsy and warmth to what is usually a cold and desolate horizon. Even the sets of the ship that Adam and Jane inhabit have this cool retro vibe to them, complete with questionable wallpaper, 50s style kitchen, 8-bit screens, and film and audio players that looked like those 90s Hit Clips that never took off. Even though not everything made practical sense, it is a great aesthetic that carries them through space adventure.
If You Were the Last is a rom-com at its core, a triumph in that context. It becomes a bit more serious in the last third of the film, which I will not spoil, but the tone changes and becomes more realistic in terms of setting and expectations. Love is the overarching theme of If You Were the Last, and the director and cast exuded their love for it after reading the script and kept that feeling to its completion; it is palpable. A giddiness sometimes accompanies films like this post-screening, and that is certainly what happened with mine.