Home Video Hovel: As High as the Sky, by Williamson Balliet
Margaret awakens in her bed and begins silently arranging the various adornments of her home. A pleasant color palette is offered, as we are immediately made aware of the overly fastidious nature of the film’s protagonist. This minute and a half of quiet organization and alignment as the opening titles commence is the best sequence found in As High as the Sky. It is the calm before the storm of contrivances and occasional histrionics. And as it progresses, the film ineffectually struggles to grasp the concepts of tragedy, family, and what jokes are.
Margaret’s older sister Josephine arrives with her daughter Hannah unannounced for a visit of indeterminate length. It’s so indeterminate in fact, that I still have no idea how long she was there. The film kind of exists outside the realm of time and the characters are not governed by the same rules as us humans. Margaret is a party planner who lives in a gorgeous Los Angeles estate, which she might have been able to afford if she bought it while it was on fire. Josephine is a motherly free-spirit archetype. You can tell she’s a free spirit because she smokes pot occasionally to somber piano music and it is mentioned that she lived on a commune thirty years ago. I imagine this was during the large commune boom of the early 1980s.
Hannah is a precocious ten year old who someone decided should dress like Abigail Breslin did in Little Miss Sunshine to tap into whatever sympathy people (not me) have for that character. And if you were wondering how precocious she is, the answer is very. The film takes great pleasure is its constant reminders of the character’s eccentricities, so much so that it forgets that it’s supposed to be telling a story until a tragic twist that occurs seventy minutes into a ninety-minute film. The massive and inevitable repercussions of which are not dealt with in the slightest. The movie tries so hard to be life-affirming and fails so spectacularly on this level that it proves to be an affront to anyone that has suffered through grief and loss.
The majority of the film concerns itself with Hannah learning to love her Aunt Margaret. She eventually learns to do so after Margaret invites a pop singer aggravatingly named Kay-Tee-P over to her home under the guise of discussing her upcoming party, though she uses her acquaintanceship with this woman to curry favor with her niece. Throughout the first 45 minutes of the film, Hannah is apparently incapable of loving anyone that is not solely engaged in bettering her life immediately, and this behavior is continually encouraged. As they all sit down to talk you can immediately tell Kay-Tee-P is a pop singer because she wears a quirky hat. The ensuing conversation about Margaret’s recently ended relationship and the death of her parents is wooden and uncomfortable to watch, neither of which were intended. This scene concludes with the singer showing Hannah a new song she had made as they all awkwardly dance in montage in Margaret’s backyard, by which point my head was in my hands shaking vigorously. I would almost recommend watching this scene for both the joy derived from its idiocy and to hear how truly bad this song is. It is not played for laughs, but it seems like a parody that one would make regarding the irritating affectations of pop music from ten years ago.
I understand the ultra-low budget of this movie. And I understand that director Nikki Braendlin was incredibly well intentioned in making this film, her first. She wanted to make a cute pseudo-drama with a couple of laughs and enough of a message that people leave happy. That said, there is not a moment of happiness that comes from As High as the Sky. The film confuses good writing with the ability to recall past conversations. The characters are clichéd amalgamations of better characters from better movies. The final scene somehow manages to be both saccharine and creepily morbid. Tough issues that the film presents are swept under the rug and the score runs the gamut from acceptable to tonally unsynchronized. Oddly enough, Caroline Fogarty, who portrays Margaret, and Laurel Porter, who plays the young Hannah, are both talented actresses. They proved themselves as more than capable and that, given the proper material, they could deliver exceptional performances in the future. This is just not that material.