New Life – the title has several meanings that become clear as the story unfolds – isn’t saying anything new. But it is lifted by a nicely-pitched central performance from an actress who just gets better as her character is tested to the max.
As a young boy Ben (Jonathan Patrick Moore) moves to the States from England with his family, where he meets Ava (Erin Bethea), who lives on his street. They become firm friends, a friendship which turns into a relationship as they get older.
Eventually she goes to college, while he stays at home to intern at his dad’s (James Marsters) architecture practice, while working on the side in a limo business.
Meanwhile at university, Ava becomes friends with David, a Very Nice Young Man (yes I know I sound like a middle aged mum here). David clearly has the hots for Ava, and she likes him, but just as their friendship appears to be about to blossom into something more, Ben comes to see her.
The two have the usual ongoing fights about how committed Ben is to the relationship, but these are minor spats and when Ava graduates and moves home to work as a teacher, their relationship once again moves forward.
It’s very difficult to review a film like New Life without spoilering it, as the story follows their relationship. A relationship that has the usual ups and downs, until a curveball is thrown into the mix when a sad but common tragedy is compounded by something much bigger and Ava is diagnosed with cancer.
There are a few types of film where there is only one place the story can really go. There’s nothing wrong with that; plenty of screenplays have easy to spot endings, and with prequels we always know where we’re going to end up. But it does mean the other elements of the film need to work a lot harder. In New Life, because it is just about their relationship, it can only really follow a couple of well-trodden paths, so once you’re watching it there isn’t really the element of surprise.
And it’s fair to say the film both works and doesn’t work. There’s a voiceover, spoken by Ben, which isn’t necessary – the story is a common one, and the characters are quite relatable anyway. What the film does benefit from though, is a terrific performance from Erin Bethea. She visibly blossoms as an actress as her storyline gets tougher. In many ways (including her facial expressions) she reminded me of Amy Adams. As a character, Ava is also more pragmatic about relationships and the work they take, and therefore more interesting.
There are some realistic touches – it’s still not unusual to see TV and movie hospital patients still caked in eyeshadow and lip gloss for example, something New Life manages to avoid. Ava actually looks really ill, when she is really ill. And I rather liked her curmudgeonly doctor, a man who doesn’t seem to have heard of the phrase “bedside manner” (though the way he tells her of her diagnosis is rather unbelievable, and I’m not sure I’d like to be treated by him unless I could be guaranteed a happy ending).
There are few ways you can show the passing of time in a movie, especially when characters are only moving from teens to late twenties. Here it’s that time honoured fashion, new hairstyles, and if anyone ever makes a film about my life (utterly unlikely, I know) you won’t be able to do that as I’ve had the same style for 500 years with only the addition of a fringe that was added in about 1850.
A couple of scenes I thought worked particularly well. Gathering both sets of parents to talk about Ava’s illness, Ben walks away unable to cope, and we catch a reflection in a huge mirror of the two older couples comforting the young woman without him. And there’s a touching moment where Ava first realises her hair is falling out from the treatment, as she starts combing her fingers through her beautiful chestnut waves with greater and greater urgency. Even when she tries to take control, her devastated acceptance is clear.
New Life isn’t saying anything new and it’s the kind of film that will do much better on VOD than in a cinema. At times it is a sweet family drama, though the screenplay (co-written by Bethea) doesn’t dig very deep.
But the realities about relationships are near-universal and in that sense it will be relatable, especially for anyone who has found themselves in a serious but loving relationship before they’re really had a chance to spread their wings, or who get caught up in the rest of what life throws at them and neglect their relationship: working long hours, forgetting what’s important, trying to get pregnant. (In fact it would have been good to have more about their childhood friendship, and much more about her university life. Come back David!)