Most apocalyptic thrillers exist in large measure for the sizzle, or are at least invested in paying off some fantastical doomsday conceit. But Goodbye World, in which a group of old college friends and lovers of the idealistic and liberal persuasion find shelter at a remote country cabin in the days and weeks after a crippling cyber-attack, is something quite different. An unusual hybrid of The Big Chill, The Trigger Effect and Into the Wild, director Denis Henry Hennelly’s film exists largely apart from the investigation of cause, arguments about culpability or even the trials of survival. It’s kind of an incidental apocalyptic drama. So if the movie unravels in the manner in which it pays off and resolves various conflicts, there’s still enough that’s stirring and original here to capture and hold the interest of adventurous indie filmgoers.
Goodbye World unfolds in Northern California, where the married James (Adrian Grenier) and Lily (Kerry Bishé) already live off the grid and in largely self-sufficient fashion, with their young daughter. Nick (Ben McKenzie), Lily’s ex-beau and James’ former business partner, and his Libertarian girlfriend, Becky (Caroline Dhavernas), are already visiting when a mysterious text message goes viral and knocks out all communications and electrical equipment, setting off a chain of panic and violence that stretches nationwide and possibly even further.
James and Lily’s home soon becomes a refuge and then a fortress for an array of estranged old friends. Included in this bunch are Laura (Gaby Hoffmann), a federal employee notorious due to leaked video evidence of an affair with a married senator; Lev (Scott Mescudi), a tech-savvy, private contractor hacker teetering on the edge of suicide just prior to the attack; Benji (Mark Webber), an activist recently released from a multi-year prison stint for eco-vandalism; and Benji’s freshly acquired carnal acquaintance, Ariel (Remy Nozik), an impressionable college student who seems to regard the potential collapse of civilization as an aphrodisiac and righteous culling. Wine, weed and conversation ensue, as this group tries to both navigate the minefield of its shared past and deal with interlopers.
Co-writers Hennelly and Sarah Adina Smith have a keen grasp of how to both communicate spreading disaster with economy and seed their dialogue with telling character shorthand. They also have a smart sense of how a disaster of the sort at the center of Goodbye World would most likely play out for a certain twentysomething subset—with much less panic and shouting than the average Hollywood offering, and a sort of inward-facing shrug. The pair’s well-grounded characterizations and clever, gender-equal give-and-take patter create any number of memorable moments, from sing-song “mathlete” in-jokes to a scene where several of the girls get high in a hot tub and pontificate about pubic shaving.
Hennelly’s previous narrative feature film as a director, the self-distributed Bold Native, centered on the Animal Liberation Front, and Goodbye World is shot through with a similar sense of forward-leaning impatience and—and this isn’t meant as a put-down—self-focus. It’s manifested in some characters more than others, but the entire movie tracks as a dissection of the millennial generation’s quarter-life blues; even the impending collapse of all social order can’t stay their self-concern, romantic ennui and petty digs at one another.
Owing to this, the first half of Goodbye World is uniquely engaging, and gripping in all sorts of weird ways. It sets up its basic conflicts between characters, both personal and ideological, with clarity and ease. The actors, in turn, abet this with naturalistic performances; especially effective are Grenier, Bishé and Webber. Even when it introduces an outside threat, in the form of a pair of menacing soldiers looking for quarter, the film has an off-center, singular personality.
The manner in which it pays off and resolves these divergences, however, is kind of a total mess—and made all the more frustrating by the rest of the movie’s defiant individualism. A low-budget, distinctively character-rooted, independent production that premiered at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, Goodbye World was never going to be confused with any of the raft of other apocalyptic movies that have hit the big screen over the past year-and-a-half. But while it doesn’t become completely overblown, suffice it to say the manner in which the film explores a community riven by fear (with assistance from an obligatory traitor) comes off as unrealistic, and halfhearted to boot. Certain bits feel designed to pay off and salve investor anxieties—to bend and twist Goodbye World into the shape of the very movies that it otherwise consciously avoids aping. And that’s a shame, really, because it’s the other, smaller stuff that sticks with you. Just as in life.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annual and ShockYa, among many other outlets. A former three-term president and current member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Simon can be followed on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Denis Henry Hennelly
Writers: Sarah Adina Smith and Denis Henry Hennelly
Starring: Adrian Grenier, Kerry Bishé, Mark Webber, Gaby Hoffmann, Ben McKenzie, Scott Mescudi, Caroline Dhavernas, Remy Nozik
Release Date: Apr. 4, 2014 (limited)