By GRACE DETWILER
Starring Valerie Alene, Rachel Olsen, Joe Sinclitico
Written & Directed by Andrew Jara
In an era where practically every horror film from the micro-budget to the mainstream is examining questions of trauma, mental illness, and grief, it can be rare to find films that explore these topics in unique and innovative ways. However, Andrew Jara’s latest indie feature THE EMPTY SPACE does just that. Based in Jara’s own experiences with anxiety and mental health struggles, THE EMPTY SPACE employs hallmarks of ‘magical realism’ fiction in its filmmaking, which conjures the sense of unreality that the loss of a loved one can create.
In THE EMPTY SPACE, Aimee Andrews (Valerie Alene) has recently lost her partner Noah (Joe Sinclitico) in a terrifying, violent, and seemingly meaningless home invasion. After a young woman named Mel (Rachel Olsen) observes Aimee having a panic attack in public, Mel invites Aimee to join her in a local therapy group, so that she can begin her healing process. After Noah’s death, Aimee has developed extreme anxiety, depression, and agoraphobia, in addition to symptoms that resemble psychosis, but may in fact be of a supernatural nature. As Aimee comes to realize, ‘the empty space’ that Noah once occupied is not so empty after all…
To begin with the ‘realism’ of Jara’s film, the writer/director has a clear dedication to depicting the reality of living with mental illness, both the moments that are traditionally cinematic, and those that are not. Through his direction, Jara uses the technical aspects of his filmmaking to place the audience inside Amiee’s headspace, creating a viewing experience that is purposefully disjointed and disorienting. Jara does not shy away from the challenging aspects of moving through the world mentally ill and explores how Aimee’s state of mind creates conflict between herself and those who are trying to help her.
THE EMPTY SPACE takes a turn for the fantastic when both Aimee and the audience come to realize that the visions of Noah and his killer that Aimee experiences are not merely hallucinations. Instead, Aimee’s debilitating grief has opened a doorway to another place of existence, and she must learn the hard way whether or not the new presence in her life has good or evil intentions. THE EMPTY SPACE asks a question long-posed by horror films of its kind: if there were a way for your deceased loved one to come back into your life, should you let them?
Despite its technical limitations – no doubt due to the lower budget – THE EMPTY SPACE is a powerful film full of excellent performances by practically every cast member. As the centerpiece, Valerie Alene brings Aimee to life with tenderness, compassion, and eventually determination, as Aimee seeks the closure that will allow her to close the chapter of her life that has held her captive since Noah’s death. While having a mental illness is not a choice for any of us, whether we continue to move forward is. More than anything, THE EMPTY SPACE should leave viewers with a profound sense of what it means to choose life over death.
THE EMPTY SPACE is available on DVD and VOD as of May 30, 2023, from BayView Entertainment.