SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Getting lost in the woods rarely ends in a good time, and Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia is no different. For Gabi (Monique Rockman), a park ranger, she stumbles across Barend (Carel Nel) and Stefan (Alex van Dyk). They’re a father and son duo who aren’t especially normal. They dress like they’re about to go on a wooly mammoth hunt and lack any social graces of the modern age. If Barend and Stefan weren’t enough, the woods are home to a deadly creature that looks like a Clicker from The Last of Us.
When the movie begins, it feels like it could go down the “hillbillies with shotguns” route. Then, it begins to feel like a thriller in the image of A Quiet Place. Tertius Kapp’s script wisely outgrows both of those prototypes to become an ambiguous drama with religious and sexual overtones. Its obscurity doesn’t work against it, as the movie has enough style to fill in the logical gaps. Only in the absence of style does an ambiguous movie become pretentious.
“…the woods are home to a deadly creature that looks like a Clicker from The Last of Us.”
As far as the religious and sexual overtones go, the relationship between the three leads is bolstered by the performances and the steady direction by Bouwer. His usage – and blending – of the environment, religious motifs, and psychosexual signaling aren’t underlined four times. The closer you are to an image, the harder it is to make out. In the same way, symbolic distance does a story well. You have a feeling something is there, but you have to go and find it.
Gaia pulls you in close and convinces you to pay attention. You’re sufficiently intrigued. Nonetheless, the movie doesn’t add anything new to its ideas or innovate on its style. As far as psychosexual dramas in the woods with monsters, this one won’t likely leave much of an impression. I’m reminded of the scene from Through a Glass Darkly where Harriet Anderson freaks out and tells the story of the spider. It’s memorable because it describes something so unusual in such a vivid and graphic way, to the point where it almost makes sense. Bouwer’s genre spin is unusual but not quite vivid or graphic enough to take up residence in the halfway house of your mind.
Lastly, Gaia uses its atmosphere to great effect. The woods are scary because you can’t see anything. You don’t know what’s around the corner, and there are corners everywhere. The director seems to understand this and milks it for all it can give, tying it into the greater uncertainty of his characters.
Gaia screened at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.
"…uses its atmosphere to great effect."