LAFF 2013: Goodbye World (***)


There’s nothing like the end of the world to bring about new beginnings.  Denis Hennelly’s understated “apocalypse” film, Goodbye World, prefaces itself with the collapse of civilization as a means of instigating tension between ideological differences governing individual lives.  Whereas this all sounds very self-aware and rather stuffy, Hennelly craftily sneaks in candid measures of levity and charm to balance out the doomsday drama, turning the narrative into an unexpectedly rich study in human relationships.  Foregoing the need to allow the escalation of the outside world’s chaos to creep into the self-sustained safe haven they’re walled up in wisely isolates the characters as a means of focusing more on their emotional interactions and survival than on the widespread danger and destruction.

James and Lily live in an isolated mountaintop home in Northern California, where they raise their young daughter off of the land they cultivate to provide for their basic needs.  Meanwhile in the mainstream world, a large scale cyber attack on millions of cell phones and the subsequent shutdown of the power grid brings about the impending end of civilized society, gripping the public with panic and prompting pandemonium.  As the world descends into mayhem, James and Lily’s old friends from college show up at their home seeking refuge and comfort, inevitably revisiting old arguments, rekindling past affections, and mounting tensions in new confrontations as they prepare for survival.  When they exercise their constitutional rights by refusing to house two soldiers in their home and relinquish their provisions, a violent clash of opposing wills and force reminds them they must work together in order to successfully ride out the uncertainty of the future.

Placing the premise of this end-of-the-world narrative far from the epicenter of the action presents a very different angle from which the apocalypse is usually viewed, and results in an endearingly real reaction from a distinct cast of characters, played wonderfully by Adrian Grenier, Kerry Bishé, Ben McKenzie, Scott Mescudi, Gaby Hoffman,  Mark Webber, and Caroline Dhavernas.  The circumstantial reunion of six old friends whose different paths in life have shaped their respective ideologies frames the parameters of the story’s focus and message within the human rather than the catastrophic element.  With an eclectic group comprised of a self-reliant Randian survivalist, a disgraced political aide, a constitutional Libertarian, a radical revolutionary, two gifted hackers, and a businessman, the resulting collision between worldviews makes for highly compelling sequences of character interactions, which effortlessly avoid feeling contrived and heavy-handed.  While all of the characters stand true to their distinct identities, their exchanges with one another function as give and take exercises, allowing for the necessary amount of compromise to peacefully coexist without greatly sacrificing personal principles.  They all exert a degree of influence over one another but the integrity of their individual personalities remains in tact through the realistic balance Hennelly constructs.

Of course, the turn toward communal living after touting self-sustenance throughout the story is conveniently idealistic, but plays into the fable’s allowance for concessions to be made in the face of necessity.  However, this shift slightly undermines James’ adamant Darwinian views on accountability and responsibility, and comes across as a bit unjust since he’s essentially the main coordinator of the survival arrangements.  Another, more irking injustice, is the fact that Ariel, the revolutionary’s latest frivolous fling and undeserving outsider to this group, takes advantage of  the hospitality of James and Lily then compromises all their safety by betraying them.  It’s difficult to shake the feeling that she has no right to be here amongst old friends, disrespecting them in their own home, but the trouble she causes heightens the stakes of the central conflict they must confront in order to realize a resolution.  It’s also pretty unrealistic that this revolutionary, who spent his days loafing about the house, abruptly summons himself to a higher calling and takes along an unlikely companion.

With its emphasis on strong characters and a smart balance of serious world views and organically derived humor and emotion, Goodbye World offers a unique human perspective on the age-old threat of the apocalypse.  Sidestepping the traditional route of immersing itself in the chaos and destruction of a crumbling society allows for a much more real glimpse into the discord that arises between a group of very different people facing the end together.  Hennelly succeeds in creating a charming human comedy amidst dangerously rising tensions in an isolated community with an uncertain future.