Film Review: Absence

The lives of a small-town couple eagerly anticipating the birth of their first child are shattered when they lose the baby under suspicious circumstances in this creepy psychological thriller that plays out very differently than its early scenes sugges

Lizzie and Rick (Erin Way, Eric Matheny) seem like a lovely, ordinary couple until the night their unborn baby vanishes. At least, that's what Liz says happened: She went to bed seven months pregnant and woke up not. No one believes her—not the police, not friends and neighbors who've known Lizzie since she was a child, not the paramedics or the ER staff at the local hospital—no one but Rick and Liz's younger brother, Evan (Ryan Smale), a loyal but supremely annoying, smartass college student whom Liz raised after they were orphaned when he was twelve.

Since Evan is majoring in film, he decides to make one that will show his sister as she really is, not as the baby-killing monster the press has made her out to be despite the fact that the police investigated the incident with pit bull-like resolve, even ripping up the plumbing in Lizzie and Rick's house in search of evidence that one or both of them somehow effected a late-term abortion in their home.

Given the atmosphere that turns something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store into a gantlet of hostile looks and cruel taunts, Rick—a combat veteran who can't bear to stand back and do nothing—suggests they get away for a while. With Evan in tow, they retreat to the secluded cabin that once belonged to Lizzie’s aunt, planning to barbeque, swim in the nearby lake and just chill out.

At first it seems to be working: Evan finds a local girlfriend, the smart, beautiful Megan (Stephanie Scholz), and cuts back on his relentless sniping at Rick (whose self-confidence and quiet but evident manliness he clearly finds intimidating); Rick immerses himself in chores; and Lizzie, who taught herself to buck up and deal after her parents' deaths, opens up to Evan emotionally but still claims to have no memory of what happened that night. Then the weird stuff starts—nightmares, electronic problems, evidence that suggests someone is lurking in the woods—not to mention Lizzie's headaches and spontaneous nosebleeds.

It's a shame that found-footage mockumentaries have worn out their welcome for so many viewers, because Absence makes good use of the format to gradually work up a sense of truly eerie menace that's all the more effective for not being the menace you expect. Even the short text that appears at the film's head is a minor masterpiece of misdirection. Director and co-writer Jimmy Loweree's sure hand is especially impressive given that this is his first feature, and his main cast—Way, Matheny and Smale—are exceptionally good in demanding roles—demanding because Loweree doesn't encourage huge emotional blow outs, focusing instead on small but intense moments while still delivering an effective shock ending.

Viewers who just don't like this kind of thing aren't going to be converted, but those who do—you know who you are—are in far a modest, handsomely crafted treat.