Before cutting down The 9th Life of Louis Drax for its clichés, there is much to be said for its positive aspects. The Canada-UK production was partly filmed in Montreal, but the bulk of the landscape is noticeably San Francisco. Anyone who’s ever visited the Vancouver Aquarium will also recognize its outdoor scenery. Based on the novel by Liz Jensen, director Alexandre Aja introduces us to Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth), the “Whacko Boy” as he’s called in school. Adults refer to him as a problem child, and he has interesting exchanges with his shrink. These are arguably the best interactions among the various characters. The 9-year old is snarky, witty and charming. However, there’s something not quite right about him. His mom thinks he’s an angel, but he most definitely is not.
As adults scramble with their own issues, comatose Louis explores Limbo (the space between life and death) accompanied by an ominous but eventually relatable monster. A slight nod here to Where the Wild Things Are. And that is the good news.
The bad news regards Dr. Pascal (Jamie Dornan) and Mrs. Drax (Sarah Gadon). The portrayal of the so-called brilliant doctor is promising, until he begins acting like Joe Blow with (not even) a stethoscope. Do most coma specialists sit vigil in plain clothes reading books to their patient, and forget the rest of the coma ward? Do brilliant doctors disregard patient-doctor boundaries? Do they make out with a patient’s family member in plain view of only mildly indignant colleagues? Louis Drax is partially a commentary about the stupidity of adults versus the brilliance of an eccentric and maladjusted 9-year old. In that respect, maybe the film does its job.
Mrs. Drax is portrayed as an innocent and fragile heroine. She looks like a misplaced transplant from yesteryear. Her coif, her wardrobe, and her submissive housewife demeanor are bizarre amidst the no-frills common every-folk. We can assume this is to make her stand out as angelic and pure. This is a predictable trope, as below the surface she is quite the opposite. As Louis expresses, beauty does not equal goodness. Mom is a calculative, misunderstood victim of ‘bad men’. Her doe-eyed blonde physique is accentuated by deliberate lighting tricks. Since the 70s, cinema at large has stopped using such techniques to highlight female characters. It feels incongruous in a modern story, but it may be part of trying to make her seem out of place and therefore different (read, suspicious). There is more potential in a discussion about creating this ethereal cross-era woman who hides her real persona, than any analysis of the depth of her onscreen merits. Mrs. Drax becomes a vapid cliché of the evil seductress in sheep’s clothing. But she is never convincingly innocent, nor terribly sinister. The fault is perhaps more with the script than with Gadon’s ability.
These aspects aside, Louis Drax has its charms. It boasts gorgeous overhead pan shots of the San Fran coast. Unlike most films set in a fantasy world (here, the mind of a comatose boy), it isn’t loaded down with gratuitous computer graphics. The special effects are rather subtle, and help meld Louis’s imagination with the reality around him. They are dreamlike but understated. It would have been nice to see some follow-through with the great ‘boiling’ animation in the opening credits. In an era where everything is animated by computers without any traditional squash and stretch or holds that still ‘move’, the sketchy lettering and scribbles are refreshing and harken back to the days where animation was still hand-drawn.
The cameo appearance by legendary Barbara Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters, Swing Kids, Love Story, Beaches) adds to the buildup of Mrs. Drax’s hidden personality traits that nobody seems to notice until they’re ensnared in her big blue eyes. Unfortunately, Aja relies on a Hitchcockian tool to wrap up any plot holes. It assumes the viewer is incapable of piecing together the mysteries of Mrs. Drax. The spoon-fed explanation is reminiscent of Psycho, and could have been handled in various more inventive ways. Though The 9th Life of Louis Drax relies on several tropes and ridiculous adults, it shines more of a spotlight on the observant and somehow likeable Louis. The cute kid offers the best acting of the entire cast, and proves that “being in a coma doesn’t suck”, when the alternative is being surrounded by troubled adults.
The 9th Life of Louis Drax opens at Cineplex Forum on September 2, 2016.