In the summer between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I became infatuated with a girl who did not reciprocate interest for the entire season. Call it making up for lost time. I didn’t bother dating during high school, having had a girlfriend in junior high and deciding I had better things to do like reading books, playing video games, operating a driving-range picker and all the other things teen boys do all the time.
Anyway, this girl and I hung out a few times while chatting online all the time; it was 2008, so we didn’t even text. I was never one to really make moves, and she was never one to read into anyone’s interest. It was what it was.
Philophobia is a story about a similar situation except in this case, Kai (Joshua Glenister) is hot as hell (as are all of his friends) and the object of his affection is Grace (Kim Spearman), a mysterious girl-next-door in an abusive relationship with local bully Kenner (Alexander Lincoln), who spends his time tormenting Kai when he isn’t assaulting Grace.
Grace keeps coming to Kai for physical comfort, which is the right thing to seek from him because he’s emotionally selfish. He’s also contending with the affections of Emma (Grace Englert), who is just as gorgeous and DTF. Everyone is beautiful here. Despite Kai’s has no trouble attracing women despite his complete lack of personality. If only 18-year-old me had had the same success when he suffered the same predicament. Not that I’d have known what to do with it.
What differentiates Kai’s situation from mine is that A) he’s fictional and B) spends a lot of time outside whenever he isn’t morosely circling big words in his dictionary. “Step out of my mind,” he tells Grace when she starts reading his annotations. Keeping things moving is the best way for Kai to distract himself. A teacher named Mr. Jackson (Harry Lloyd) encourages Kai to get out and ”live life” to improve his writing. “There’s a whole wide world waiting to shit on you. Use it,” he says, which is pretty good advice. But he also congratulates Kai on “making it with the hottest girl in school in the broom closet” as if that’s the kind of life experience that helps you tell stories. Not sure. Worth cutting Mr. Jackson some slack: He’s young and probably pretty new to the job. After all, he shares smokes with Kai on a casual basis. He is the definition of “too cool for school.”
Everyone is so cool in Philophobia, but the story has trouble clicking into an emotionally engaging place. There are numerous episodes of peril and drama, but only a few carry weight. One involves an incident at a local lake that interrupts Kai while he’s getting lucky in the woods. Another moment involving graphic sexual assault starts with intensity but cuts to a resolution that feels strangely unsympathetic towards the victim. Kai’s perspective dominates the movie and while not taken lightly, her experiences are largely motivation and frustration for Kai rather than fleshed-out aspects of her character.
The story never quite slows down or becomes grounded enough to earn its depiction of partner abuse — and the resolution to that situation … well … it’s hard to describe without spoiling anything, but it is not much more emotionally cathartic.
Philophobia plays like an ode to the end of adolescence, an episodic journey through people just trying to have a good time. It occasionally captures that mood, but forays into the heavier topics without proper catharsis sort of derail it.
Back to my predicament a decade ago. Full circle. During that summer, I had no idea how to proceed in really talking to this girl or trying to take things to even the most chaste of the next levels. When you’re an 18-year-old boy who hasn’t been with someone in a long time, you feel lost in the weeds. There are so many different feelings happening simultaneously. You can’t stop thinking about sex, and you also have to figure out how to be a person, and what being a person means in relation to understanding another person stuck in the same situation as you but different. It sucks. You’re an asshole in ways you don’t realize until you’re older. But you learn, particularly from failure, and especially those involving love or something like it. I’m glad that relationship a decade ago never went anywhere, but I’m more glad that I learned a whole lot of things about myself and how to handle love.
I joke about Kai’s situation in Philophobia — which the film reminds us means fear of love — but it never feels like he really learns a lot about himself. By the end of the movie, he’s hard to empathize with and not in a way that feels particularly insightful about the tumultuous life of an adolescent. Everything hangs there off the edge of an ending that sputters despite the pyrotechnics of an unfortunate mistake. There are a number of theories here that combine dream sequences and repressed emotion, but I’m not sure they matter in the face of a character who just doesn’t connect.
Still, director Guy Davies’ eye for visuals makes simply viewing Philophobia worth the price of admission. That’s not an understatement. His use of light and composition keeps the film chugging along even when the emotional core feels lost in the weeds. The characters are all gorgeous and charming (thanks, too, to excellent performances). Even the assholes. Kai exists on a heightened plane of existence that feels luscious yet not staged. Unreal but not plastic. You suspect that his ”small town” is basically The Village except instead of everyone protecting themselves from trauma, here we have a colony of perfect tens who want to live separate from all the uggos. Even the parents are splendid to look at. No wonder Kai can’t deal with the possibility of moving away from home. The opulence on display is likely a pleasure to see on the big screen, and it will be interesting to see what Davies shoots next.
Philophobia s an Official Selection at the 2019 Heartland Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.
4:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 13 — AMC Castleton Square Theater 11
12:00 p.m., Wed, Oct. 16 — AMC Traders Point Theater 7