SXSW Review: “If You Were the Last” Goes from Lost to Saved in a Lovely Final Act
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 13th, 2023
If You Were the Last (Kristian Mercado, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
If You Were the Last, from director Kristian Mercado and writer Angela Bourassa—both making their feature-film debuts—is the rare kind of film that turns tired clichés into something surprisingly fresh, reinventing itself in the final act to become something quite lovely. Depending on one’s tolerance for rom-com tropes foregrounded in what is essentially a two-person chamber piece for the first hour, getting to the redemptive conclusion may prove a chore. But it is worth it, for the joy of having expectations confounded is a rare treat.
Zoe Chao (Downhill) and Anthony Mackie (We Have a Ghost) play Jane and Adam, two astronauts aboard a spaceship adrift in orbit around Jupiter, their navigation and communication systems no longer working. With little to do but keep their renewable food supply (chicken eggs, goat’s milk, various fruits and vegetables) going, they while away the time watching movies, listening to music, dancing, attempting repairs, and slowly becoming besties. But it’s been almost three years since mission start, and they’re starting to get horny.
Watching over them is the skeleton of a third crewmate, Benson, who, we infer, lost their mind and … well, we don’t really know. “Shit got real,” we see scribbled on a calendar from back then. In any case, Benson’s presence acts more like a silent therapist, as Jane and Adam each weigh the pros and cons of taking their relationship to the next level and doing the deed. Sure, they’re married to spouses back on Earth, but given that they’ll probably never make it home alive, why not get busy?
The dialogue in these scenes ranges from clever to tiresome, much of it nothing we haven’t hear before in more planetarily grounded romantic comedies. Still, Mercado does his best to keep it lively through his purposefully contrived production design, outer space rendered through whimsical animations and palpably plush constructs. The on-board computer graphics follow much the same trend, and the decor inside the ship is cozy but hardly realistic. Nevertheless, some things start to happen that raise actual stakes of life and death.
Just as we threaten to lose interest in the proceedings, Bourassa shows her dramatic hand and very much ups the ante with a sudden shift in events. It’s a remarkable narrative change and redeems much of what seemed to not work before. Jane and Adam go from two lost souls to people with an actual future. The question becomes, however, whether the close bond they have developed while in danger will sustain itself once rescue is an option. It’s to the credit of the filmmakers that we care deeply about the answer to that question, and a credit to Chao and Mackie that Jane and Adam resonate as fully three-dimensional beings through thick and thin. Hurray for films that are capable of such momentous transformation.