BY ROCCO THOMPSON
Imagine, if you will, THE SHAPE OF WATER as conceived, not by a middle-aged Mexican master, but an early-thirties Connecticuter seemingly raised on a steady diet of early-to-mid-90s Nickelodeon programing, and you’ll be within splashing distance of what SOFT MATTER feels like. Austin-based writer/director Jim Hickcox’s first (barely) feature-length production is a slap-happy slurry of bone-dry humor, lo-fi techno-fetishism, and handmade aesthetics that owes just as much to TV’s Goosebumps, KaBlam! and The Secret World of Alex Mack as it does the classic creature features of decades past.
Drs. Kriegspiel (Mary Anzalone) and Grist (Hal Schneider) are two death-obsessed scientists who’ve taken up residence in an abandoned hospice care center where they perform clandestine experiments on the leftover patients. Their goal: to splice the DNA of “biologically immortal” sea creatures (octopi, jellyfish, et al) with humans in a bid for eternal life. These unnatural hybrids of hominid, cephalopod, and mollusk ignite the anger of an ancient sea god who appears to the duo in a dirty mop bucket. Just as the baleful fish deity is about to take action against the meddling scientists, graffiti artists Kish (Ruby Lee Dove II) and Haircut (Devyn Placide) break into the facility in the hopes of creating an art installation.
The plot—such as it is—feels like something found scribbled in the margins of a Biology text book, and it’s just that aura of prankish adolescent day-dreaminess that makes SOFT MATTER such fun and suffuses the performances of the game cast. Anzalone and Schneider make a well-matched comic pair, while Dove and Placide are plucky, likeable heroes and Mark Blumberg and Catherine Grady round out the cast as two art-world stiff necks. The squidgy, crabby, gloppy denizens of the hospice are used sparingly, but hilariously, with a sentient sack of goo (appropriately named Mr. Sacks) stealing the show in a bomb ass dance sequence. If there’s one performance that leaves one wanting, it’s the sea-god herself. Bodied by Sam Stinson and voiced by Mykal Monroe, the character is visually appealing yet lacks any sort of verve in terms of vocal performance, and proves to be the least entertaining weirdo in a movie chock full of ’em.
Though the storyline is simple, the laughs are wrung from a brain that clearly joys in irony and linguistic cleverness. “I am puzzling!” Kriegspiel declaims after being interrupted by Grist while both ruminating on the shortness of life, itself and laboring a five-hundred piecer. Later, when Grist inquires, existentially, “What are we doing?” Kriegspiel’s response of, “I dunno, this is my first time murdering a god…” illicits a throaty giggle from the viewer as Hickcox’s comedy gleefully exists in the gap between meaning and understanding, the metaphorical and the literal. Also, a line like: “Mr. Sacks! You ruined your freshest kicks!” can never fail to be funny, no matter the context.
Style-wise, SOFT MATTER feels like a warm hug for anyone who grew up in the soft glow of the cathode ray tube, opening with a chorus of electronic bloops and fuzzy, retro footage of a shoal of squid. The grotty, Instagram-filter drab locale allows the film’s flurry of pastel-colored excretions and bolts of purple lightning to pop, while slo-zooms and bold cuts to black give things a nice forward momentum. Hickcox’s camera-work isn’t exactly revolutionary, though his flat, yet elegant staging and framing gives the film a unique visual personality and painterly quality. Lastly, watercolor musical interludes and paper puppet flashbacks are the day-glo cherries atop this lo-fi, handmade freak show.
SOFT MATTER is a nostalgia trip that shares DNA with your favorite supernatural children’s programming from the 90s. With its Adult-Swim style humor and a near constant barrage of hysterical and inventive characters, situations, monsters, wordplay, and catchy original ditties, Jim Hickcox’s debut feature aims beyond mere hipster-baiting nostalgia for something more earnest. Still, SOFT MATTER may be a lot of fun and little more, but that’s OK: this “aquatic and weird” flick is a salty treat for anyone looking for an off-beat bit of sci-fi lunacy, and, like a sandcastle during high tide–or Mr. Sacks’ easily ruined kicks–it’s an all-too fleeting delight.
SOFT MATTER hits video on demand on May 22 from Wild Eye Releasing