Director: Barry Levinson
Runtime: 86 minutes
The Bay is the kind of film that hits and misses with such force and rapidity that your feelings on it may change from moment to moment, dissolving any hope of walking away with a whole and unified impression. Aspects of this film work well – from the general set up to the palpable sense of dread and unease – while other aspects may set one’s teeth on edge with their sheer clumsiness and tone-deafness.
The film does manage to justify its admission into the found-footage genre, anchoring it in the zeitgeist of the day while also skirting some of the more profound questions the genre forces audiences to ask. It may be a personal issue I have with the genre, but I’m always surprised at how readily the haphazard filming of certain events works into a plausible narrative. This is to say nothing of the omnipresent “why are you still filming this” question that becomes especially relevant to horror films.
The Bay posits itself as a kind of guerrilla expose on a parasitic outbreak that happened many years ago in the small town of Claridge, Maryland, located on the Chesapeake Bay. It is the Fourth of July, and Donna Thompson (Kether Donodue), a communications major at American University, is filming a news segment in the town as part of a college assignment. This is our narrator, who in the present is walking us through not just her own footage, but the deluge of other video of the event recently liberated from government censorship by a WikiLeaks-type entity. Thus, we get a full, propulsive narrative that cuts in her own experience with the narratives of the CDC, a harried local surgeon, a family on vacation, a pair of cops, and numerous other characters.
This framing device may open up the narrative, but it does place a lot of the weight of the storytelling on Donodue. This is the odd performance that may fail for being far too convincing. In the footage of her as a cub reporter, she is perky, unpracticed, and something of a failure, which we are meant to believe is the truth of her character. Having been a journalism student, I can speak to the veracity of this kind of clumsy, awkward first step into the spotlight. At the same time, her present self is just as nervous, but also more self-effacing, and given to moments of self-reproach. Anyone who has watched family movies of a botched talent show appearance could be familiar with this form of “can you believe I did this…” reflection, and while it makes sense that such a character would act this way, it doesn’t make enduring her moments of reverie any easier.
This is especially true once the outbreak begins, and we are able to understand the true horror that is afflicting the town. Kether has a habit of pointing out who will live and who will die, which in some cases adds to a sense of depressed foreboding, but also allows her moments of “it’s hard to believe…” retroactive mourning, which comes off as clumsy and overreaching.
Luckily, the negative impact of these choices (and I call them choices instead of failures because I do believe this movie plays as it was meant to) are mitigated by the tense build-up to the horrifying realization of what is happening to the town of Claridge. This narrative is aided on two fronts, by a pair of oceanographers whose research was done weeks in advance of the July 4th incident, as well as the surgeon and his conversations with the CDC. Anyone who has read a certain Cracked article could guess the horror to come, but the reveal is no less terrifying or shocking. There is an alarmist environmental angle to the terror to come that is leaned on a bit too heavily, but the grounding of this terror in a real-life organism helps to created a palpable sense of “what if” unease that will have you rushing out to buy a Brita filter.
The Bay may be uneven and uncomfortable (in a bad way) in some places, but it is definitely worth a look if you are wondering what an old pro like Barry Levinson can bring to the table of the found footage genre. Also, if you’re a fan of the creep-fest horror movies of old that made you think twice about everyday activities you used to take for granted, this one is for you.
The Bay is now in limited release and on VOD.
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