Pandemic films take a big risk. In a world where people are tired of isolating and seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, the last thing many viewers want to watch is a film about a virus ravaging the globe. Ironically, the pandemic-era necessity of keeping film crews and casts small and isolated can also lead to the most palatable films in the genre. ASHGROVE, which recently had its world premiere at Glasgow Film Festival, wisely leans into the microcosmic. By focusing on our humanity and the fact that events that don’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of things still matter a great deal on a personal level, ASHGROVE sculpts a compelling story that gives the viewer a small bit of hope in a hopeless world.
Jennifer Ashgrove (Amanda Brugel) is a scientist leading the world’s foremost team of researchers trying to find a solution to a global pandemic. The whole world has become infected with a disease that makes water toxic to humans. The human race now faces “The Great Paradox”: drink too much water and you die; drink too little water and you die. Jennifer suffers from stress blackouts that affect her memory, and when she has an alarming episode, her supervisor Frank (Sugith Varughese) and a neurologist named Dr. Lakeland (Christine Horne) advise her to take a weekend trip to her farm to relax and let her mind recover. Jennifer goes to the farm with her husband Jason (Jonas Chernick), but he needles her at every turn, checking off items on a mysterious list that seem designed to agitate Jennifer. She must solve the mystery of what her husband’s secret agenda is and find a way to stop the blackouts so she can save the world before global toxicity levels reach a point of no return.
ASHGROVE can be a maddening watch at times, even without the knowledge that the end of the human race is imminent. It’s easy to identify with Jennifer, and the film takes you along for the ride as she tries to figure out why Jason is acting so strangely. Though both leads give committed, organic performances, it is easy to hate Jason. When the reveal inevitably comes to explain his behavior, the film suffers a bit from too much exposition, which may be a result of the film’s unusual filming style. ASHGROVE was shot chronologically, with the story and script being developed collectively by the actors and director Jeremy LaLonde, often within each scene as they were shooting. Improvisation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course: there’s a looseness to Jennifer’s interactions with other people that draws you into her world, and you can feel the weight of the history she has with each character. It does, however, leave the central mystery feeling a little less sharp than it should, though the payoff to small details still satisfies.
There are small bits of story that feel intimately familiar in the middle of a pandemic. Jason, who has plenty of time on his hands with his wife busy trying to save the world, learns to play the ukulele. (Remember when all anyone could talk about was their sourdough starter?) Jason and Jennifer carry around bottles of water with lines marking off the ounces they’ve consumed that day, and Jennifer checks a kind of breathalyzer app every morning to determine how much she can safely drink. They obsess over how much a cup of coffee or a slice of watermelon is worth, pouring out the appropriate amount from their bottles to make sure they don’t exceed their daily allowance. It feels just foreign enough to keep the film from seeming doomed to irrelevance when (if) COVID ever ends, but viewers who have been masking and eyeballing six feet of distance between themselves and other people for the past two years will recognize that level of routine vigilance immediately.
ASHGROVE, at its core, isn’t a story about a pandemic, though. It is a story about a relationship, and the viewer winces at each new crack that is revealed in Jennifer and Jason’s marriage. Her work has obviously kept her away from home quite a bit, so the distance between them is palpable. Jason is a writer, and when she learns that he hasn’t touched his book in months because he doesn’t see the point in it, she is wounded, assuming that his hopelessness means he has no faith in her. That despondency is easy to relate to as well; I identify far more with people who wonder, “Why bother?” than I do with people who have picked up interesting new hobbies. It does feel like a betrayal on his part, though, given Jennifer’s position as the world’s greatest hope for a cure. Those betrayals start to pile up, as they so often do in a marriage, and where the two end up is even more surprising than the film’s central mystery.
That is ASHGROVE’s biggest strength. By focusing on the mundane details of a marriage, it argues that the small things in life still matter. Even in the face of a global pandemic, things like love, faith, and joy still matter. What you have for lunch, who you spend time with, how you find a way to make it through the day…it all still matters. Though the narrative isn’t as sharp as it could be and the experience of unraveling the mystery alongside Jennifer can be infuriating at times, ASHGROVE does provide small pieces of hope for viewers. And that still matters.