Starring Katie Brayben, Poppy Roe, Ben Lloyd-Hughes
Written and directed by Cousin Staten Roe
Some time ago, a former compatriot took to self-improvement by way of a series of seminars and team-based experiences. Such yearning for personal development was commendable, but gradually, the groups he became affiliated with grew increasingly . . . questionable. He lauded the teachings he was receiving (for a heavy fee) and on more than one occasion, recommended I test out an “initiation” at one of the weekly classes. I was informed that this particular form of inauguration worked best on newcomers should they be of a depressed disposition. Such a melancholic state would make one more “receptive” to an assortment of group-mandated emotional breakdowns before concluding with a dialogue on future sessions based on a highly expensive tier system of unquestioning devotion equivalent to that of Scientology. It ain’t enlightenment if it’s free, right? Anywho, red flags hath been waved. I kindly declined. I’ll keep m’brain unwashed, thank ya very much.
It’s this very sort of self-help addiction (that I avoided) which A SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE successfully criticizes without making a soapbox of it. It’s no secret that the self-help business is both a booming and predatory practice, so what better than a film that not only mocks the exploitative trade, but satirically posits that the best response to a swindling self-help guru is that of a good ol’ fashioned bludgeoning?
Written and directed by first time feature-filmmaker Staten Cousins Roe, ASKGTL follows Lou Farnt (Katie Brayben), a lonely woman with an abusively manipulative mother. When Lou isn’t waiting on her matriarch hand and foot, she’s listening to the therapeutic recordings of a renowned therapist (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) while traipsing about the hometown she could never grow out of. Thankfully for Lou, her daily routine of deprecation is interrupted when she meets Val Stone (Poppy Roe), a very different kind of “life-coach”. With her newfound mentor, Lou joyfully embarks on a road trip beyond the confines of her sheltered upbringing. Unfortunately, said counselor has a penchant for murdering anyone affiliated with self-help, life-guidance and those that profit from the open wallets of the miserable. Oh, What is naive Lou to do?
With its darkly humorous tone, ASKGTL nails the self-indulged attitudes and attributes of many a life-coaching element. From assembly rhetoricians and nature-obsessed tree-huggers to that of meditative therapists tricking followers into sexual debauchery—many an actual form of life-coaching is skewered (figuratively and literally) for the empty vessels of exploitation that they are. While I never laughed at any of the humor, I appreciated the dry tone and believable delivery from each actress, as well as the surrounding cast. Essentially, imagine the Brit-flicks SIGHTSEERS or PREVENGE crossed with an early Taika Waititi production (like BOY) and you’ll have a good idea of where ASKGTL’s sensibilities lie.
Such a tone works for the majority of the film, but as ASKGTL journeys from one victim to the next, it begins to lack much in the way of surprise. The idea is a one-trick pony that doesn’t truly evolve the premise beyond what’s expected and becomes a rinse/repeat of therapeutic slayings that are visually stifled by repetitive cutaways and (sometimes) after-imagery of a corpse. While ASKGTL raises some questions in the latter half as to the specificity of each woman’s involvement, it’s neither something that hasn’t been done dozens of times already, nor is it particularly memorable herein. By the finale, I had higher hopes for what may transpire during the climax’s confrontation of egos, but ASKGTL instead vies for something too conventional. At barely 75 minutes, ASKGTL doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it also leaves little impact.
The plot may lose steam, but the driving force of ASKGTL is that of its two fantastic leads Katie Brayben and Poppy Roe. Each encompass distinct personalities and such divergence brings about great chemistry. They’re consistently watchable and as far as cinematic killers go—are quite likable. Even if the narrative began to plod, both Brayben and Roe keep things engaging.
A SERIAL KILLER’S GUIDE TO LIFE is a worthy entry in the British dark comedy canon and signifies a talent to watch in writer/director Staten Cousins Roe (especially given how much of an independent endeavor this film was). It lacks staying power and isn’t exactly something I’d equate as “horror”, but it’s an estimable offering with a clever premise and two great performances from its leading actresses.