Writer/director Shal Ngo’s feature debut, The Park, is a tale of opposite forces, both colliding and pulling against each other. Playfulness crashes into sadism, goofiness bangs heads with savagery, practical concerns compete with wild dreams, and, most centrally, hope struggles to overcome despair. It’s Mad Max via Lord of the Flies, blending action and horror in a post-apocalyptic saga of roving child murder gangs, earnest friendship, and an abandoned amusement park.
When a disease kills everyone who has gone through puberty, only children are left to wander the Earth. In this ruined world, Ines (Chloe Guidry) and Bui (Nhedrick Jabier), on the verge of adolescence, thus imminent death, search for a probably-not-real child genius rumored to be working on a cure. What they find instead is Kuan (Carmina Garay), another survivor working on her own project, reopening the deserted theme park where she lives.
At 76 minutes with credits, The Park doesn’t waste any time getting down to business. Seriously, three minutes in, a kid kills another kid with a machete. This is not the kind of movie that shies away from feral brutality, but at the same time, it’s not one to wallow in the misery, which keeps it from being entirely bleak and desolate.
Ngo’s script balances the dark and the light, much to the film’s benefit, or else it could have been just the most serious bummer of all time. These are kids, left on their own, fighting and scraping and battling just to survive. But they’re also kids, silly and curious, equally capable of great inhumanity as they are of great warmth and care.
Ines is hard—the end-of-civilization situation made her hard, but as we see in flashbacks, the world was already well on its way to doing the job before the apocalypse. But moments of joy and wonder also poke through the fortified exterior she presents. For her part, Kuan is the free-spirit with wild romantic notions of what the world can be, but capable of cruelty, petty jealousy, and anger. Yeah, trying to reopen an amusement park in a collapsed world is a ridiculous endeavor, but it’s also her way of pushing back against hopelessness. Bui is, and was a soft boi, shoved around and bullied by the worlds both old and new, putting up a fierce front, and nearly consumed by his act.
Most of The Park focuses on these three, and the young actors do fantastic work. They capture the fear that so often manifests as violence; they put up confident facades to mask deep-seated insecurity and uncertainty; as tough and brave as they present, as strong as they want to appear, they’re scared kids near their breaking points. These nuanced, natural, authentic portrayals sell the friendships, the rivalries, the soaring dreams and harsh realities, and portray deeply affecting bonds. They not only have to survive the pain of adolescence, but the actual end of the world, and they carry the picture.
With cinematographer Jared Levy, also making his feature debut, Ngo makes excellent use of the setting. Filmed largely in the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans, it offers ample opportunity for striking images. Sweeping drone shots depict unchecked nature reclaiming the man-made artifice; a place once known for fun and happiness now sits heavy and dead with rot and decay. Thematically it’s all of a piece, as characters, and the world at large, resist the onslaught, the possible inevitability of losing themselves in the wilderness. Lovely inventive images drive home these ideas, and even, at times, hint that, instead of the two extremes, victory or annihilation, there’s another option, a balance, a synergy that may yet be achieved. Maybe, just maybe, these kids will be able to create a new, better world.
Like its heroes, The Park is slight in stature—short, minimal resources, few locations—but certainly not in heart and substance. A moving post-apocalyptic depiction of the endless struggle between optimism and pessimism, and for all the bleakness and desolation, it ultimately ends with hope, with warmth, with the possibility of a new tomorrow. [Grade: A-]