Audiences are in for a flight attendant’s psychological headtrip that’s unlike any other in this debut feature from New York-based filmmakers Rome Petersson and Alice Millar.
The Defy Film Festival is a yearly boutique film festival in Nashville, Tennessee that celebrates the artistic side of cinema, highlighting short and feature films with unique artistic intention from a variety of genres, from underground horror and surreal comedy to museum films and the avant-garde. One such feature film to have its world premiere there this past weekend was Attendant, and it opened the festival to well-deserved praise thanks to its creative storytelling, surreal tone, experimental genre shifts and compelling performances from its female leads.
Attendant follows Aoife (Helen-Rose Hassett), a flight attendant having an existential crisis after being stood up by a married pilot co-worker who’s left her stranded in Cape Cod’s National Seashore where they had planned a weekend getaway. While wandering aimlessly, Aoife comes across a street performer named Edeth (Andrea Merkx) whose presence seemingly bubbles a long-repressed part of Aoife’s personality back up to the surface of her psyche. This causes the wayward stewardess to spiral into an unnerving journey of self-discovery that leads her sense of self to unravel and devolve into monstrousness.
Because the narrative of Attendant is so minimalist, to go any further about its plot, the full extent of who Edeth is and where she takes Aoife risks treading into spoiler territory. But what’s fascinating about the feature from first-time director Rome Petersson and cinematographer Alice Millar (both of whom also collaborated on the film’s script) is how they create a hallucinatory mood and tone that entraps those who watch it into a story that starts out like any standard narrative, only to then transcend itself into the cinematic equivalent of guided hypnosis.
The film’s ambient score full of deep, shimmering synthesizers paired with long, slow takes and equally long and slow cross dissolves from gorgeous nighttime landscapes of the marsh and closeups of the nearby marine life, to underwater shots and trippy reflections of the moon glistening against the river submerge spectators to the point of immersion into Aoife’s terror as she is left to tread the waters that surround her in despair upon realizing her own mental state. This effect also gives audiences an opening to meditate over their own anxieties, and feel affected by the literal calming voice of the film which assures that everything will be okay.
This also comes through in the sound design outside of Aoife’s revelation, particularly when she first lays eyes on Edeth; the eccentric street performer does her own demonstration of using flight equipment just as Aoife’s done a million times before, but it’s mixed as if to sound like it’s coming from a muffled intercom not unlike on an airplane. This also extends to private character moments as well, as the sounds of the ocean’s tide coming onto shore replace the sound effect of a brush gliding through Aoife’s hair, indicating a brief but sadly fleeting inner peace of mind.
Attendant also does a splendid job of enveloping us into Aoife’s fractured subconscious through traditional means, such as in a scene where she details to Edeth all the eye-opening specifics of her flighty relationship over a montage of her preparing for her lover’s arrival in a fancy cottage. It’s also in moments like these that Hassett’s performance as Aoife is most compelling, as her eyes communicate both a longing for connection and regret over a past mistake in extreme closeups that trap her in the life-altering consequences of her situation. Meanwhile, as Edeth, Merkx exudes a welcoming, carefree demeanor that counters Aoife’s quizzical reservations with an exhilarating charisma that’s reigned in with restrained naturalism.
Together, Hassett and Merkx even convey their characters’ animalistic sides via the haunting way Aoife and Edeth explore their bodies in a moment of what feels like intoxication, which does not come by accident. The storytelling in Attendant’s script goes so far as to reference folklore in an instance where Aoife recites a Native American parable about the beings that exist within every person in a moment of incredible foreshadowing.
All this being said, Attendant is not a film for everyone. The abstract nature and sparseness of the plot may turn off some viewers looking for something more conventional, as might a detour in the third act that introduces the weak link in the film’s ensemble of non-actors. But Attendant is still a solid first feature in the careers of Petersson and Millar, because together they have crafted an ethereal daydream about finding self-love.
What begins as a straightforward narrative about a woman at a crossroads in her life evolves into an ominous piece of guided meditation, only to end with a big, warm hug. Audiences will go on an emotional journey from start to finish, be captivated by the sound design, and confront their own internal strife head-on until they leave reinvigorated. After two years of coping with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on society, our personal and professional lives, there’s nothing more appropriate for the open-minded to see than Attendant.