by Jason Coffman
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Breaking Glass Pictures and Vicious Circle Films are creating quite an unusual catalog of independent genre cinema, ranging from super low-budget American films to interesting imports. Asylum Seekers may be the strangest film they’ve released this year, a bizarre absurdist dark comedy that defies easy categorization.
Six highly dysfunctional characters enter an exclusive mental hospital to escape from the madness of the outside world, but are dismayed to learn that there is only one room available. In order to win the only open room at the hospital, the characters must pass a series of tests and competitions watched over by The Beard, a faceless voice that observes everything, and administered by Nurse Milly (Judith Hawking) and her assistants Minnie (Ken Jennings) and Mickey (Joseph McKenna). These being supposedly insane people, however, things do not go exactly as the hospital administration may have planned.
The closest thing Asylum Seekers has to a sympathetic protagonist is Dr. Raby (Daniel Irizarry), a sex-obsessed speech therapist prone to profane outbursts and outrageous tics. He is instantly attracted to fellow potential inmate Maud (Pepper Binkley), who has cracked under the demands of her husband and work, volunteering herself for the hospital stay after being caught faking a pregnancy at her job. Their principal competition is Paul (Lee Wilkof), a crazed patriot whose politics and conspiracy theories are so confused that he appears to be an Anti-American terrorist. Paul rallies the other applicants to his cause on the promise that he will take over and allow them all to stay in the hospital, but as the competitions become more and more bizarre, who is winning and who is lagging behind is anything but clear.
Asylum Seekers was adapted from a stage play by writer/director Rania Ajami, and it carries over much of the feeling of a theatrical production, despite the often beautiful production design. The settings for the action of the film are a dizzying array of surreal rooms, from ancient libraries to Victorian operating theaters to a cold modern room with mirrored floors. Shot on RED digital cameras, Asylum Seekers is never less than nice to look at. Unfortunately, the writing is all over the place: while Irizarry is effective and often very funny as Dr. Raby and Binkley is fine as Maud, the outsized cartoonish characterizations of the other characters is ill-suited for a film. Especially irritating are Alan (Bill Dawes), a man who apparently believes he is Missy Elliott, and Alice (Stella Maeve), a girl who loves computers so much she likes to be electrocuted. These characters may have made a bit more sense on the stage, but they badly throw off the tone of the film.
Still, despite its often obvious jokes and annoying characters, Asylum Seekers is a very unique and occasionally very funny film. Its beautiful sets and cinematography and weirdo sensibilities make it ideal for anyone looking for something very different from typical genre fare. Hopefully Ajami can remove her next film further from her stage roots, as she is clearly a talented filmmaker. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for whatever she does next.
Breaking Glass Pictures and Vicious Circle Films release Asylum Seekers on DVD on 30 August 2011.
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and “The Crown International Files” for Criticplanet.org as well as contributing to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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