Any good coming-of-age movie needs strong, quirky, yet likable characters going through the pangs of adolescence. If it’s set in a super-judgmental small town that feels more like a prison, all the merrier. If those characters bond over their dreams of experiencing something bigger and brighter, even better. And if they also start hallucinating time-travelers from the future — well, buckle in for a wacky journey. In that way, the new film Antarctica, which follows two best friends in their last year of high school, feels less like the raunchy female-led comedy Booksmart and more like the off-kilter Napoleon Dynamite in the way it uses the weirdness of a small town to highlight the weirdness of growing up.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for Antarctica.]
In Antarctica, surly Janet (Kimie Muroya) gets put on mood-altering medication (marketed as a soft way to be more pleasing to society as a woman), which makes her hallucinate. She meets a boy who claims he’s from the future, and the two start a romance. Meanwhile, after a regrettable party hookup, shy Kat (Chloë Levine) becomes the target of rumors that escalate as she discovers she’s pregnant. The two of them navigate their newly tense friendship as they grapple with separate issues and their dream of escaping their small, stifling town.
The movie works best when director Keith Bearden plays up the weirdness and brings the characters together, but it’d be stronger if Kat and Janet’s storylines shared more of a solid thread. Antarctica’s pieces feel disconnected, where a firmer link could have sewed them together into something bigger than the sum of its parts. But as it stands, while those parts are steady on their own, and occasionally beautifully poignant, they still feel like detached vignettes.
Janet’s misadventures blur the line between reality and the side effects of her medication. Hers is arguably the more interesting story, because it’s so surreal and unfamiliar, which means that the plot beats are surprising and unexpected. Kat’s story is more familiar and rooted in reality, but when juxtaposed with Janet’s, it limps along without as much resonance. They each share a theme about what it’s like to grow up as a young woman in a closed-minded small town that doesn’t take young people seriously, but there’s a slight dissonance between the blurry reality of Janet’s storyline and the uncomfortable reality of Kat’s that’s just jarring enough to hinder the movie’s overall tone.
The film’s best scenes happen when the girls are together. Sometimes it’s a typical teenage movie scene, where they climb up to a rooftop to share thoughts — and spy on their neighbors. But in Antarctica’s most powerful sequences, Bearden uses subdued vignettes to capture big emotions. When Kat tells Janet she’s pregnant, it’s done via voiceover as faceless hands pass around pictures of the girls, in picture frames and on phone screens. The two of them then look up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling above them.
Tying the whole movie together, though, is the understated dark humor. While Kat and Janet have comedic moments, what makes the movie funny is the underhanded delivery of absurd background details and information. At a school assembly, the principal doesn’t even blink while commenting on the gang-style murders happening at a nearby elementary school. One recurring gag is the history teacher’s idolization of Ronald Reagan. None of these elements are necessarily outside of the realm of possibility, but still taken to the extreme, they emphasize the town’s off-kilter nature, which makes Janet’s time-traveler beau actually seem plausible.
When Janet learns what exactly is going on with her time-traveler friend, it’s a revelation that fits nicely into the movie’s slightly absurdist tone — not quite speculative fiction, but a weirder version of reality. In the moments when Kat’s plotline leans into that absurdity, the two storylines come so close to meshing. The best moments, however, happen when the two girls find solace with each other amid the chaos. Their small town may be deeply odd, and their own lives may only get wackier, but they have each other. Much as Napoleon and Deb reconcile while playing tetherball at the end of Napoleon Dynamite, Kat and Janet make up in a soft, understated moment. What is a coming-of-age movie, if not just the friends we made along the way?
Antarctica is now available for digital rental at the Microsoft store and via On Demand services.