Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Film Review: Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person

We can sometimes feel broken, until we meet someone whose broken pieces fit ours perfectly

I promise you, a very brief tangent about Doctor Who is relevant here.

Last week, Doctor Who aired the episode "Rogue," where the Doctor meets a charming bounty hunter at a posh gala ball. As part of the plan they devise to lure out the Monster of the Week, the two men dance in public view of the easily scandalizable guests. Commenting on this scene in her video review of this episode, Jessie Earl praised the scriptwriters' choice to have queer characters take control of the dynamic of marginalization and weaponize it in their own favor. Coming up with a way to turn an element of your oppression into a tool you can wield against your oppressors is greatly empowering.

I was reminded of that interpretation while watching the Canadian dark comedy film Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person.

Our protagonist is Sasha, a vampire girl who cannot hunt for victims because she's unusually empathetic for her kind. She absolutely needs human blood to survive, but watching her fellow vampires kill for their meals has always been too shocking to imitate. The way of life that defines her family feels cruel to her, and for her entire life she's depended on her parents' supply of human blood. However, when her parents decide that she's old enough to feed herself, she faces a serious dilemma: how can she avoid starvation when she can't bring herself to kill anyone?

This premise is very interesting at the literal level, but it's even more so when one reads the emotional currents that course underneath. Sasha's family situation is heavily coded with the signifiers of transgenerational abuse. Remove the vampire trappings of the movie, and what remains plain in sight is that matter-of-fact cruelty has been normalized at her home, and her parents actively pressure her to reproduce the same cruelty. Her principled refusal to comply and her determination to find a way to live without more violence resemble the inner process survivors of emotional abuse undergo when they decide to break the cycle.

Her yearning to define herself in her own terms finds its outlet when she meets Paul, a depressed teenager whose experience with intense bullying has driven him to suicidal intent. Again, at the literal level, there's plenty of morbid humor to extract from the absurd encounter of an obligate predator and an all too willing victim. But in terms of emotional content, what's going on here is the forging of a mutually supportive bond between two abuse survivors who discover that their respective weaknesses can make each other stronger. To refer back to Jessie Earl's video, the specific ways they've been mistreated happen to equip them to be each other's best support.

In trauma recovery it's common to hear the refrain "Hurt people hurt people." But hurt people can also empathize with the hurt that others have gone through. To be clear, the movie's plot is not aspirational. No abused person should have to rely on the coping strategies that emerge from living in permanent crisis mode. But it's a positive change when they find that they can. The close friendship that forms between Sasha and Paul is an extremely anomalous solution to extremely anomalous circumstances. He gives her a way she can satisfy her needs without becoming a monster like her parents, and she gives him a way to find purpose outside of the harmful environment he's been so far limited to.

Spoiler alert: Paul's journey doesn't result in suicide. At the end of every "I don't want to live" is an asterisk that points to the footnote "… like this." The director-writer duo of Ariane Louis-Seize and Christine Doyon evidently understand this point. It takes a very delicate touch to make a story about suicidal depression that manages to be funny without being insensitive, frank without being sensationalist, uplifting without being naïve. It can sound outlandish to call a movie about centenarian bloodsuckers realistic and relatable, but these characters' struggles reflect many real problems that occur in toxic families and negligent schools.

The ingredient that helps this recipe achieve the right flavor is the impressive casting for the two lead roles. Sara Montpetit as teen vampire Sasha conveys a rugged vulnerability that underscores her character's desperate need for acceptance while maintaining an anxiously practiced distance from the ever-present threat that she poses to every human being she meets. Félix-Antoine Bénard as high schooler and part-time worker Paul is the sweetest incarnation of self-destructive self-defense. His daily life is a continuous string of "What did I ever do to you?" that he deals with by preferring to do nothing to anyone. He's a sort of mirror to Sasha: the two of them are loath to harm those around them, but while the supposedly well-meaning but ultimately unreliable adults in Sasha's life fear that she won't cause harm, the supposedly well-meaning but ultimately unreliable adults in Paul's life fear that he will.

Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person makes a potent argument for rejecting inherited patterns of abuse. Behind the acerbic comedy of a family of people-eating fiends, you'll find a compelling demonstration that the way you've been taught to relate to others doesn't have to be the way you stay stuck in. It doesn't matter how lowly you may think of yourself; even a bored, long-lived, unnatural monstrosity can learn new tricks.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.