The most interesting thing to come out of expanded streaming during this period of staying home is the access to diverse voices. Many of the films featured in this column have come from less-represented communities: female filmmakers, filmmakers of color, even physically disabled filmmakers. It feels like a promising sign that this week is no different, with two films, in wildly different genres, coming from filmmakers of color who use established tropes to bring their unique perspectives to familiar stories. One is a horror film, the other is a young adult romance; both are worth checking out.
Jeff Barnaby’s indigenous Canadian zombie movie, which recently hit the horror streaming service Shudder, is a creative take on the genre that incorporates its strong roots in political allegory and social satire, bringing to mind both George Romero’s social consciousness and John Carpenter’s DIY aesthetic.
Blood Quantum takes place in the remote Canadian Mi’gmaq community of Red Crow, where one day all manner of dead things start coming back to life, starting with a freshly gutted fish. The undead illness quickly spreads to humanity as Red Crow’s sheriff, Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), tries to protect his ex-wife Joss (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers), son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and estranged son Alan (Kiowa Gordon) from the undead hordes. The film then jumps six months into the future, revealing how Red Crow has adapted post-apocalypse.
The first section of Blood Quantum is lean and gory, boldly wearing its B-movie identity on its sleeve in a way that would make Romero, Carpenter and their like proud. Barnaby wrote, directed and edited the film, and created its Carpenter-esque score, combining synths and indigenous vocals. It all feels extremely appropriate for a movie that starts as Night of the Living Dead and morphs into Escape from New York.
The second and third act of the film include fascinating subtext; Traylor and his community discover that they’re mysteriously the only humans immune to zombie bites, which feels like the Earth’s divine retribution on their behalf, after centuries of colonization and injustice. Unfortunately, the movie takes on more plot than it can reasonably hold, losing that all-important leanness as it bifurcates into three separate story threads that are unevenly developed and hard to follow. But even with those downfalls, Blood Quantum remains an ambitious exercise that follows the genre’s grand social commentary tradition via down-and-dirty, satisfying pulp.
The Half of It
It may seem odd to have a dual recommendation that places a zombie movie and a young adult romance side by side, but stick with me. The Half of It, from writer-director Alice Wu, is, like Blood Quantum, a unique take on familiar genre tropes from an underrepresented perspective. Here, Wu’s film features a Chinese-American heroine in a queer take on Cyrano de Bergerac.
Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is the smartest girl in her class in her rural Pacific Northwest hometown of Squahamish. To help her dad pay the bills, Ellie hires herself out as an academic ghostwriter for her classmates. This side hustle takes an unexpected turn when football player Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer) hires Ellie to write a love letter to his big crush, popular girl Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire). Ellie herself harbors a crush on the intelligent, artistic Aster, and struggles to hide her growing feelings as the letter charade continues. In the meantime, Ellie and Paul also start to bond.
The Half of It is just as much a story about Ellie and Paul’s growing friendship as it is Ellie’s feelings for Aster (if not more so), and the chemistry between Lewis’ stressed-out Ellie and Diemer’s sweet, goofy Paul is its strongest element. Romancing Aster may be the catalyst for their unlikely connection, but it quickly turns into a bond between two young people trying to figure out who they are and what they want for their futures.
Wu develops this central relationship nicely, displaying sweetness and care in the way her characters push their boundaries and selflessly support each other. Some elements of The Half of It can feel a bit thin or contrived (like a lot of high school movies, there are certain plot developments that would never be allowed to happen in real life) but her emotional beats are always right on.
It feels important that both The Half of It and Blood Quantum are telling stories in genres that appeal to wide audiences. These aren’t high-minded arthouse films, or social issue documentaries (though it’s just as valuable to promote diversity in these spaces as well). These are movies that are easy to digest, and use that accessibility to tell stories specific to the communities they represent. Each reminds us of the creativity and perspective that diverse filmmakers can bring to well-worn genres, and the refreshing experience that creativity can bring to audiences looking for something new.