- Queen of the Andes
- Written and directed by Jillian Acreman
- Starring Bhreagh MacNeil, Hailey Chown and Jason K. Roy
- Classification N/A; 96 minutes
Any film that comes out of Telefilm’s micro-budget Talent to Watch program should be considered something of a celebratory achievement. After all, the program was designed to launch the most famished of hungry first-time filmmakers, with cash funding capped at just $125,000 per project. Although it provides a great opportunity for emerging artists across the country, Talent to Watch is also based on the assumption that its filmmakers must be small-scale miracle workers, too.
So far, the program has birthed a handful of cinematic saints: Last year’s Toronto International Film Festival saw the premieres of Sanja Zivkovic’s mother-daughter drama Easy Land and Heather Young’s animal-shelter-set character study Murmur, both of which garnered a fair amount of acclaim and distribution deals, of a sort (Easy Land was released digitally on-demand this past spring by Mongrel Media; Murmur went the virtual-theatre route, and will be streaming on CBC Gem starting Sept. 25).
With all this in mind, Jillian Acreman’s Queen of the Andes, premiering at the virtual Atlantic Film Festival this week, should count as another Talent to Watch success. The fact that the New Brunswick-shot drama exists at all is remarkable; what’s even better is that it is a mostly engaging piece of cinema, with ambitions and ideas to spare.
Taking place in a near-future Canada, where the government has gone full Space Force and started conscripting citizens for a one-way trip to colonize Mars (complete with hand-picked sexual pairings, to ensure genetically strong outer-space offspring), Acreman’s film is a nervy, sometimes angry look at what happens when our lives are upended by forces out of our control. Perhaps because budget limitations prevent Acreman from delving too deep into the mechanics of the Mars program, she focuses her story on the young scientist Pillar (Bhreagh MacNeil), who spends her last days on Earth desperately trying to figure a way to escape her un-chosen assignment.
Visually, Acreman does a lot with a little, using bare-bones sets – a hallway, a library stack – to create an impending sense of dread that mirrors Pillar’s anxiety about leaving her friends, her family and her work behind. It is a starkness that is contrasted by Pillar’s few moments of pure joy, such as when she and her girlfriend (Hailey Chown) go to bed one last time and their room suddenly fills with a field’s worth of flowers.
One of the smartest moves Acreman makes is giving much of the screen over to MacNeil, who is as sympathetic here as she was startling in Ashley McKenzie’s Werewolf back in 2016. Few of MacNeil’s co-stars are able to match her presence, though, resulting in a half-professional, half-amateur state of actorly dissonance. Also spotty is the script, which solves some messy emotional puzzles with a disconcerting level of ease.
But true to the name of the Telefilm program that’s responsible for this project, Jillian Acreman is a talent to watch. Whether she decides to stay earthbound for her next project or grasp for an even higher stratosphere is up to her. Personally, I think she could go interstellar.
Queen of the Andes premieres Sept. 17 at the Atlantic International Film Festival, and is available to stream through Sept. 24; viewers must be located within the four Atlantic provinces (finfestival.ca)
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