SOFT MATTER is proof that a film can go as absurd, silly, and off the rails as it likes as long as it has a committed cast. That is not to say that writer/director Jim Hickcox is a slouch with no handle on tone, but there are moments in the film when the “anything goes” attitude threatens to teeter over into an area that is too precious. Fortunately, when those moments do pop up, the actors pull the proceedings back to a careful balance of blissful, charming weirdness combined with a smattering of STREET TRASH-like neon goopiness.
In a closed down hospice care facility, Doctor’s Kriegspiel (Mary Anzalone) and Grist (Hal Schneider) have holed up to perform experiments on strange sea creatures. What kind of creatures? There is Miss Tree Fish (say it quickly to get the pun), a slug-like organism with tentacles that it uses to flirt with Grist. Mr. Sacks is a humanoid being that is composed of plastic trash bags and leaks brown goo. Also briefly glimpsed are a woman who appears to have lobster claws and a mass of squirming tissue that spews black mucus.
The doctors (although it becomes questionable if they are actually doctors as the film goes on) are trying to find the secret to immortality and believe that these strange mutant organisms may hold the key. Clearly, they are a couple of crackpots, but their work does arouse the anger of a sea god (performed by Sam Stinson and voiced by Mykal Monroe) who first appears to them in a mop bucket before emerging in its fully developed form to attempt to stop their research.
Into this chaos come graffiti artist Haircut (Devyn Placide) and his art promoter best friend Kish (Ruby Lee Dove II). They have broken into the closed facility to do a quickie art installation of haunting-related works inside a haunted building to pull one over on the pretentious art community as both a joke and an actual attempt to boost Haircut’s profile. When the mad scientists, the creatures on which they experiment, the angry sea god, and the artists all crash into each other’s worlds, the scene is set for fireworks—okay, not really. The scene is set for droll, understated comedic performances and brightly colored battles laced with more absurdity than actual menace or fright.
SOFT MATTER works best when it mines the material for character bits that subvert its mad doctor premise. Kriegspiel and Grist carry the bulk of the film in its first act with their unhealthy relationship. As she grows more obsessed with her research, he is slowly giving up, putting each other on their last nerves in a series of interactions laced with passive-aggressive behavior that loses the “passive” part very quickly. Anzalone and Schneider have a great sort of anti-chemistry that draws unexpected laughs as their characters negotiate the horrifying idea of having to live and work with someone you can’t stand. Haircut and Kish have a much less antagonistic relationship, but Placide and Dove play off each other equally as well with his gentle enthusiasm tempered by her nicely deadpan performance (when you take into account that she spends the entire film with a Salvador Dali mustache drawn in magic marker on her face, Dove’s subtle performance is actually a thing of wonder).
Where Hickcox occasionally runs into trouble is when he pushes the absurdist bits too far. While sequences of Mr. Sacks dancing to electronica and the sea god’s back-story told in choppy animation are agreeably funny and silly, an animated musical sequence about Haircut’s dead turtle and a closing song performed by a character who does not make it to the finish line jump the wall from cute and fun to feeling like self-indulgent inside jokes on the part of the filmmakers. But—for a film like this—being too ambitious in attempts to entertain are far less of a sin than being too restrained.
I can see SOFT MATTER being a headscratcher for a viewer expecting a low-budget gorefest/sci-fi action flick. But I was able to get on its weirdly laidback/joyously anarchic wavelength and had fun with it. It may be over-stuffed, but the character work, the fun cast, and the wonderful design of the sea god kept me entertained throughout.
SOFT MATTER is now available on DVD from Wild Eye Releasing and is streaming on Amazon Prime.
–Matt Wedge (@MovieNerdMatt)