‘Brave New Jersey’ is a charming, almost-alien invasion story
Directed by: Jody Lambert
Written by: Jody Lambert and Michael Dowling
Starring: Tony Hale, Heather Burns, Anna Camp, Sam Jaegar, Leonard Earl Howze, Dan Bakkedahl, Raymond J. Barry, and Erika Alexander
“Brave New Jersey” – “For one night, you can let go of your inhibitions and become someone completely different.” – Peg (Anna Camp)
Peg, a schoolteacher who lives in the small, farming community of Lullaby, NJ, harmlessly explains her interpretation of this one night, Halloween, to her students. Little does she realize that Halloween and its effects will arrive one day early on Oct. 30, 1938.
For history buffs, this date owns significant meaning: Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds”. Seventy-nine years ago, his famous/infamous retelling of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion story caused an unnecessary panic over a portion of the American public, and for the residents in the sleepy town of Lullaby, they are not exempt from this collective anxiety in director Jody Lambert’s enjoyable first feature film “Brave New Jersey”.
Lambert’s picture is not a horror film. Instead, it is a throwback to old-fashioned movies of yesterdecade.
Now, any negative, preconceived notions of New Jersey’s crowded freeways, industrial corridor eyesores and aging concrete neighborhoods will be quickly dismissed. Lullaby completely feels like a Norman Rockwell painting waltzing on the big screen, as its main street promenade – complete with a general store and an ice cream shop - nice compliments the inviting, rolling green hills. Mayor Clark Hill (Tony Hale) embodies the town’s surroundings as a soft-spoken protagonist who writes his never-ending list of errands in his trusty notebook and greets everyone with a smile, especially towards the sweet – but also very married – Lorraine (Heather Burns).
Clark, Lorraine, Lorraine’s Husband (Sam Jaeger), Peg, Peg’s boyfriend (Matt Oberg), a reverend (Dan Bakkedahl), a church-going couple (Leonard Earl Howze and Erika Alexander), and a host of other folks run through their own normal patterns of small-town life, but when the aforementioned radio broadcast reaches their collective eardrums, this nearby alien invasion sparks their true, inner feelings which suddenly disrupt their familiar routines.
The film nicely maneuvers between the plethora of “Lullabians” and their individual journeys prior to and after the Oct. 30th broadcast, as some characters emotionally travel farther within the confines of Lullaby than they ever could via a physical trip to a proposed-alien home world. Lambert and writer Michael Dowling explore slices of the human condition with the characters’ true selves that suddenly burst onto the scene, triggered by the possibility of death or alien enslavement. Human beings – as we all know - are far from perfect, and with a community of individuals exploring their ids, several changes in behavior do not always result in collective kumbayas, but rather, the worst in people.
With an invisible Frankenstein’s Monster who might stomp its feet in their little town – a place that boasts the fourth tallest water tower in three counties – Lullaby residents sharpen their pitchforks and ready their rifles. Cooler heads might prevail, but Clark’s gentle hand might not be enough to douse the agitated flames. Whether or not Clark saves the day, we just hope that a romance will spark with Lorraine. Hale and Burns share a warm chemistry of two kind souls half-reaching towards one another, and their welcoming on-screen presence anchors this nostalgic, cinematic trip. Camp delivers a notable performance as well, as Peg takes the film’s most pronounced turn in a series of surprises, including her final close-up.
Whether one sits close to the theatre screen or far away in the last row, “Brave New Jersey” looks richly filmed with dozens of nice touches, including bookend shots of a picturesque country road, an occasional glace to the stars and flawlessly lit night scenes that never allow the audience to struggle with shadows or dim obscurities. There is nothing obscure about the film’s presence at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival, as “Brave New Jersey” took the Best Ensemble Acting, Best Director and Best Picture awards. In turn, this almost-alien invasion story will reward its audience with a charming trip to Lullaby and a foreign concept for too many of us: expressing one’s true feelings.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.