“Do you know what people are scared of most?” “Death?” “The Unknown”
Akash Sherman’s contemplative sophomore feature Clara is an examination of the unknown; specifically the unknown inhabited within the millions and millions of lightyears surrounding Earth. It follows people in their quest for answers that will alleviate some of those fears – making the unknown known. But equally important to Sherman is the internal discoveries people find within.
Issac (Patrick J. Adams of Suits fame) is a man of science with a disposition that there is no antithetic to reason. Emotions like love he argues operate against rationality; acting in ways that are volatile, intangible and fleeting. It is the outlook of a man who carries with him the weight of trauma and grief to which he copes by burying all emotion, it is better to feel nothing than to feel pain right? To adopt a cynical facade expecting nothing right? But that leaves a void, an emptiness that yearns to be filled manifesting itself into an obsession. For obsession gives one purpose, offers the possibility of redemption and perhaps an opportunity to leave a legacy that transcends all past misgivings.
Obsession over justice (Batman / most superheroes), obsession over revenge (Old Boy, Fatal Attraction, etc), Obsession has appeared in many variants across diverse narratives. For Issac, it comes via an obsession with finding what lies beyond in the depths of outer space. Fuelled further by the launch of the Tess and James Webb space telescopes (both real-life NASA projects that reflect Sherman’s desire to authentically depict the science behind the film) Issac’s obsession alienates the majority of people around him except the titular Clara (Troian Bellisario of Pretty Little Liars fame).
Writing for the A.V Club, Nathan Rabin coined the phrase “manic pixie dream girl” to describe a female character that “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Clara is the foil to Issac. The spiritual assistant to the troubled doctor. She believes in the power of feelings embracing the mystical nature of the universe’s machinations. By this definition, Clara embodies the prototypical manic pixie dream girl with Issac as her brooding male counterpart. Sadly within the confines of Sherman and co-writer James Ewasiuk’s script that’s all she ever is.
Sherman wants his characters to experience evolution through discovery and the impact they have on each other but the central relationship in Clara is largely commensalistic rather than mutualistic. Clara functions as the tool to help Issac out of his pit of despair, her own arc stagnating in service of Issac’s. She becomes more a plot device to elevate the emotional stakes than a fully realized human being. Finishing for the most part where she began at the outset of the film, Clara is rarely more than a compository of quirks. Thus the impact Sherman hopes to achieve is cheapened – like looking at the sky and seeing just one star when there is an entire galaxy of wonder to behold if only one was willing to look deeper or from a different perspective.
At times Sherman feels like he is so invested in reaching the dramatic conclusion that he rushes past these minute moments which would be better served if they were given an opportunity to breathe, for the viewer to really sit in the feeling of the moment acknowledging its weight and significance. When Clara does accomplish this, it is at its best. The instances where the camera lingers and Issac allows himself to release the pent-up emotions he has buried for so long.
Like most young directors (he is only 24), Sherman is still raw. He demonstrates an acumen for the visual aspects of the medium – one particular crossfade transition from a planet to a pint of beer stands out in my memory – showcasing a flair for special effects made even more impressive by the film’s indie budget. There is a foundation here to a unique style he can further mold to his individual image. As he continues to make films, these aspects will further refine itself but for now, like the vast unknown of space he depicts in Clara, he represents a boundless potential. I don’t know where it will lead but like Issac, I’m excited to find out.
[EIFF Review] – Clara
Akash Sherman's Clara embarks on a journey of enlightenment in the deep recesses of outer space.