Josephine Doe13254766_1776988392521183_7046086649369466467_o
People deal with grief in their own ways, lashing out, hiding away, changing their lives. Sometimes they invent invisible friends and allow themselves to be peer-pressured by them.  That is the premise of JOSEPHINE DOE, Ryan Michael’s new feature about Claire, a young woman  faced with her father’s passing who finds solace in the company of Jo, a fun loving like-minded soul who challenges Claire to make a few changes in her life.  One thing about Jo though that bothers all of Claire’s family – she isn’t real.

I’m not revealing too much of the ‘twist’ of the film, because Jo’s lack of corporeal presence is revealed fairly early on and much of the film is about how Claire handles the possibility that she might be going mad.  This is not “The Sixth Sense” with a whiplash ending that makes you rewatch the movie, its more “The Lovely Bones” from the perspective of one of the girls from “Perks of Being a Wallflower.” As Claire tries to distance herself from Jo, she must come to terms with her mother’s history and what put her in a mental home.  Claire is also not sure she wants to give up her invisible friend. Her world was already sparse, losing her father has left a giant void with nothing else to fill it.

Erin Cipolletti wrote the screenplay and stars as Claire, lending the role just the right amount of driftless disappointment that comes from never achieving a dream or more so, never even having a dream to strive for.  Her greatest talent comes in giving Claire presence despite the way the rest of the characters in the film walk all over her, including her sister and her niece. Even her invisible friend drags her moment to moment. And yet Claire never feels inactive, she is searching for something she will never recognize.

One of JOSEPHINE DOE’s lovely gifts as a screenplay is that Claire finds her own happiness. And it comes entirely from within – of course it looks like it coming from someone else, because Jo provides her the opportunity for change, but Jo isn’t really there, so Claire is the one affecting her own situation through the visage of Jo. The ending leaves the audience with no doubt that Claire is going to find her way through this, even if her solution may satisfy no one but herself.

With confident direction and keen eye for the cinematic visual, Ryan Michael keeps the focus on Claire’s relationship with objects – a broken typewriter, a gravestone, a collection of scrapbooks. Her world is a tactile one, one desperate for the ethereal that Jo provides. Emma Griffin plays the invisible gal pal, and her energy sends both Claire and the film into a tailspin of discovery.

At 72 minutes, the film falls a tad short of reaching that discovery, mainly because it never quite answers the question of ‘what to do with Jo?’ Even if Claire has come to a certain understanding of why Jo appeared and what to do about it, her sister and her sister’s family get tied up a little too easily based on Claire’s actions and the family history. The film is also shot in my least favorite style — ‘inexplicable black and white’ — which always seems to do more to hide the budget than add anything artistically to the film.  In fact, the scenes with Jo could really have used a vivid color pallet to match the vitality she brings. That said, JOSEPHINE DOE is one of the most insightful portraits of family trauma I’ve seen in a while. The cast is uniformly strong, the script subtle, and the pacing flawless.

JOSEPHINE DOE made its premiere at Cinequest and played Dances With Films last week.  It is currently playing festivals and distribution has not yet been announced.

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