Film Review: What Keeps You Alive

This brisk psychological thriller about what you don’t know about the people you love features excellent performances by leads Brittany Allen and Hannah Emily Anderson and some tidy plot twists.
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Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) are celebrating their one-year anniversary with a quiet vacation in a sprawling house that’s been in Jackie’s family for generations. It’s in the middle of the woods, there’s a large lake nearby and Jules has fallen in love with the place. She might even love the house more than she loves Jackie—just joking, she laughs.

Their rustic idyll doesn’t last long. The first disquieting note is struck when Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), who lives across the lake with her husband, pays a visit. She and Jackie were childhood friends—they “used to get into all kinds of trouble,” she laughs—and when Sarah saw lights on in the house she did the neighborly thing and came over to make sure everything was okay…there have been some break-ins. The odd thing, though, is that Sarah calls Jackie “Meghan.” There’s an explanation, of course; Jackie says that when she came out she realized she’d never felt like a Meghan, so she changed her name. Fair enough—people change their given names; for that matter, Jules’ given name is Julie. But it nags at her, enough that when Jackie goes into town, Jules pays a visit to Sarah, one that has serious repercussions.

To say much more would be a disservice to viewers: Writer-director Colin Minihan’s thriller is tightly plotted and delivers a couple of terrific shocks, shocks that are firmly rooted in character. When things go south—which they do quickly, and they take a literal nosedive—it makes a warped kind of sense. To be sure, one could argue that making sense is a low bar, but it’s one that many filmmakers working in the thriller/horror genres can’t—or can’t be bothered to—clear in the rush to get bloody mayhem rolling. And Anderson and Allen deserve particular credit: Jackie and Jules are well-written characters—particularly in a genre where women tend to be final girls or mangled corpses-in-waiting—but the actresses’ performances have a specificity that makes them memorable. 

What Keeps You Alive’s greatest liability is its title, which could belong to anything from a faith-based film to a tear-stained drama of repressed family dysfunction. It alludes to a piece of dialogue that’s deeply unsettling in context, but on its own—say, when a potential viewer is browsing listings—it doesn’t say much, unlike the title of Minihan’s previous feature. It Stains the Sands Red doesn’t tell you exactly what the movie’s about, but it’s pretty clear what the red is. And that’s a shame, because the horror/thriller genre is a crowded one, and What Keeps You Alive is good enough that it deserves to be noticed.