Filmmaker Jeff Baena, whose work includes quirky indies The Little Hours and Horse Girl, makes intriguing, entertaining films, so I went back to his directorial debut, Life After Beth. It’s very much of a piece with his later efforts, leveraging genre furniture against sociological and psychological themes. The target of Baena’s lens this time is grief, as it follows the efforts of Zach (Dane DeHaan) to recover from the tragic death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza). Zach is a mess, taking some solace in his relationship with Beth’s parents Maury (John C. Reilly) and Geenie (Molly Shannon), but his grieving is complicated by the messy way he left things with Beth before she died. When Beth comes home, miraculously alive after having clawed her way out of her grave, Zach finally gets a chance to say all the things he never said. Unfortunately, Beth’s return may be an omen for a zombie apocalypse.
Life After Beth starts in a low-key, distancing way, and it takes its sweet time to ramp up. The narrative strategy quickly becomes evident: undead Beth is a stand-in for the the grief of Zach, Maury, and Gennie, for whom Beth’s life lingers the most strongly. These early stages of the film weren’t quite clever or funny enough to engage rapt attention, but the film improves significantly as the madcap scenario escalates. Once Plaza is afforded the opportunity to cut loose, the gags get funnier and the film’s effect becomes more pronounced. Overall, it’s an uneven film, but fans of Baena’s other work are likely to enjoy it, and it left me interested to see what he does next.