Maybe you’re vexed by the official description for Little Death, the debut feature from music-video director Jack Begert. Maybe you want to know more than, “A middle-aged filmmaker on the verge of a breakthrough. Two kids in search of a lost backpack. A small dog a long way from home.” Maybe you’re itching to search for a more detailed plot description.

Take my word for it: don’t.

The worst thing about Little Death, which Begert co-wrote with Dani Goffstein, is that the best things about it are all spoilers. Please excuse some vagueness in the interest of your best possible moviegoing experience. 

David Schwimmer, fully leaning into the self-pitying act he honed as Ross Geller, plays Martin, the middle-aged filmmaker. Martin’s life is, as he tells his therapist, “meaningless.” A long-suffering TV writer, Martin’s finally got an autobiographical script in the works, but wokeism threatens his masterpiece. He abhors his fiancée, Jess (Jena Malone), who commits such unforgivable acts as blending things in their blender and expecting him to listen when he talks. A vast cocktail of psychiatric meds hasn’t cured his misery, but it’s not all bad––he dreams nightly about a sexy woman in a barn. The kids are Karla (Talia Ryder) and AJ (Dominic Fike), two druggies caught up in the absurd underbelly of L.A. The small dog unites these disparate storylines.

Little Death is probably one of the most surprising films you’ll see this year. Begert and Goffstein’s script is wonderfully unique, while the former ably switches from eye-popping visuals to patient observation. Martin’s world is vibrant and overloaded, chock-full of violent imagery and flashes of unsettling AI art. Editor Jake Torchin really earns his stripes in these scenes, cutting between frames so rapidly that the end result resembles a stop-motion panic attack. He and Begert have created a perfect representation of what it looks like inside the brain of a person with incurable neuroses. Karla and AJ’s exploits are depicted with more subtlety but no less artfully, and Ryder and Fike give fantastic performances. Newcomer Sante Bentivoglio makes a meal of his first-ever feature role as he butts heads with the always-great Karl Glusman (Watcher).

This film is mostly about human fragility and drugs; no surprise Darren Aronofsky produced it. Like an unsympathetic Nina Sayers, Martin is losing himself in obsession––with the sexy barn lady, his movie, his waning relevance in pop culture. Karla, AJ, and the people who love them are singing their own Requiem for a Dream. But Begert sets himself apart from Aronofsky’s dour oeuvre with delicacy and humor. Martin is the unwitting protagonist of a satire about cancel culture and the paranoia of the privileged, demonstrating how the derision of hypocrites––in this case, moviemakers who measure diversity by quantity, not quality––can make a shitty guy even shittier. Karla and AJ are lovable for all their youthful stupidity, especially because they really care about each other as friends.

As Little Death zig-zags like a sidewinder in the desert, Begert strikes a neat balance between esoteric inscrutability and blunt messaging. It’s nice to see a first-time director unafraid to let his viewers have their own experiences and come to their own conclusions. Here’s one: the bravest thing about Little Death isn’t its risks––it’s the filmmakers’ choice to forgo nihilism for hope.

Little Death premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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