Slow-burning and haunting, Bokeh isn’t an easy movie to wrap one’s head around. Bearing two leads and three other minor roles in the cast list should tell you what kind of movie you’re in for; Bokeh pares back all the standard tropes of an apocalypse/rapture film, leaving behind a lean, stark portrayal of two people in a dire predicament.
It all begins with the unexplained disappearance of everyone in a small Iceland town while American tourist couple Jenai (Maika Monroe) and Riley (Matt O’Leary) sleep. Soon, they discover everyone they love – and everyone on earth – seems to have disappeared; phone calls and internet messages to loved ones go unanswered. News channels show a constant stream of static. The roads and skies are bereft of drivers and planes, and there’s no one manning the stores.
It’s an easy setup; last-man-on-earth stories are a dime a dozen. However, co-writers/directors Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan turn this circumstance into a powerful conflict of fight and flight, with Monroe and O’Leary carrying the film handily. Playing the only two people on Earth, they both make their situation as believable and natural as possible, giving life to fear and courage in the face of the impossible with appropriate gravitas and nuance.
Monroe seems to have a thing for films which play to mournful silence, one of her last efforts being the effectively spooky It Follows. Much like that film, her performance in Bokeh relies on her body language and emotive eyes speaking much more than the small amount of lines she’s given. That’s not to say she’s been short-shrifted in the script department; Orthwein and Sullivan take this great opportunity to show rather than tell, giving Monroe room to be and breathe, not just deliver lines.
Likewise, O’Leary (who, to my knowledge, hasn’t carried a film as a lead like this before) is allowed to own the screen with his adventuresome presence, at once trying to make this new world safe for him and Jenai, but not afraid to do what he needs to do for themselves. Although we’ve seen him handle himself well with memorable supporting roles in Brick and Frailty (R.I.P. Bill Paxton), I don’t think we’ve seen the full extent of O’Leary’s dramatic capabilities until now, and he cuts a striking figure as a man who’s trying to settle into his new existence.
As I said before, this film plays to a lot of mournful silences; it’s a silence full of regret and unfulfilled wishes. Orthwein and Sullivan make the choice to not swamp this film with overwrought melodrama, and it’s a much-appreciated decision. Bokeh could have easily devolved into silliness or hand-wringing theatrics, but it manages to avoid both of those in favor of keeping the film grounded in the humanity a story like this so very much needs. Joe Lindsay’s gorgeous cinematography – thankfully shown with long, lingering, dreamlike takes – entrenches us in this quietly crazy reality, ensuring not just our observation, but our participation as Jenai and Riley navigate their way through their upturned lives.
“Bokeh” is a photography term, a name for the out-of-focus portions of a picture. It’s a word which sums the film up tidily, being a movie about those bits of our lives which stand blurred in the background suddenly coming to the fore. With all the time in the world and in their limited space, Jenai and Riley are given the chance to bring those bits into sharp relief, and the film patiently examines how they do so. Both Monroe and O’Leary give themselves willingly to the proceedings, providing stirring and ponderous performances which power this indelibly memorable feature film debut by Orthwein and Sullivan.