Hayley Erin in New Life, directed by John Rosman

New Life, a twisty horror thriller debuting Tuesday at the Fantasia Film Festival, is excellent, but it’s hard to say why without spoiling it for you. Let’s just say it starts with a bloodied young woman named Jessica (Hayley Erin), fleeing someone. Her lead pursuer soon turns out to be the gun-toting Elsa (Sonya Walger), who has trouble walking, for some reason, and needs pills.

All these things will be explained over the the next marvelously constructed, beautifully controlled 80 minutes, as we travel through sprawling stretches of Oregon, where writer-director John Rosman went to college and spent 10 years working in public broadcasting, producing digital videos. He has a news veteran’s ability to tell a story with economy and verve, never letting your attention slip.

The festival describes New Life as “one of the major discoveries of Fantasia 2023… a rare thriller that doubles as an unexpected emotional powerhouse.” XYZ Films has picked up the North American sales rights.

Twenty minutes into the film — after Jessica has met two people who react to her differently than you might expect — I said to myself, “This is a very good movie.” And then it got better. Soon New Life has you puzzling out very modern ethical quandaries you probably didn’t think much about a mere four years ago.

Rosman has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a good person in the modern age, but New Life isn’t what most people would consider uplifting. It shows how even good people, doing good things, can create chaos and death.

“I do tend to believe people are kind,” Rosman told MovieMaker in Montreal this week, ahead of the Fantasia premiere. “But also, if you’re making a scary movie, or a horror movie in the way that this movie is a horror movie, and no one’s doing the wrong thing — everyone’s trying to do the right thing, but it still ends up a horror movie — I think that also can be kind of terrifying.”

The trailer for New Life, starring Hayley Erin and Sonya Walger.

John Rosman on Cutting New Life

The film is ruthless in the best way, cutting away anything pretentious or fussy in service of the story. Rosman notes that excising what some filmmakers might perceive as “a style” is, in itself, a style.

“It probably comes from journalism,” he says. “The more invisible I can be in the movie, the better it felt for me. … And that’s probably a little bit of my personality.”

He edited the film as well as writing and directing it, and killed many of his darlings during the process. His main objective is to keep audiences from being taken out of the story. His outstanding leads help with captivating, unshowy performances.

John Rosman, director of New Life. Photo by Noah Dye.

“Let’s say you have two great takes. They both sound the same. The performance in one is better than the performance in the other, but there’s just something about the other one that feels better, that feels more honest or something. To me, that will always win,” he says.

It’s especially important given that in his film, the main character is largely silent for about 15 minutes.

“So I think it is really important to be like, ‘Okay, how do we just keep people in this moment?’ And then because we’re making a horror movie, let’s maybe tease that: ‘Trust me, you need to trust me, we’ll get there.’ But I think the only way to do that is by trying your hardest just keep them from beat to beat, which ends up being scene to scene,” Rosman says.

The film is a bit reminiscent of Debra Granik’s immaculate Oregon-set 2018 film Leave No Trace, and Rosman also counts Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 Wendy and Lucy, as well as Chloe Zhao’s 2017 The Rider, as strong inspirations.

Rosman, who is from Detroit and is now based in Los Angeles, evolved as a filmmaker doing advertisements, music videos and documentaries. His directorial reel highlights his versatility and fondness for radio, as you can see here:

While directing, he also found time to write about a half-dozen features. One in particular got some industry attention, including from prominent producers T. Justin Ross (The Mortuary Collection) and David Lawson Jr. (Something in the Dirt). When that project proved too expensive, at least for the moment, the producers helped Rosman make New Life as economically as possible.

“Both those guys have done amazing work on small budgets,” he notes.

He shot the film last year, taking advantage of all the evocative, overlooked locales he had mentally catalogued while working for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Between graduating from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and making his feature debut, he has also worked as a digital editor for NPR affiliate KPBS in San Diego, as the social media editor for Fronteras Desk, and as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant.

All of those experiences — but especially going out to isolated locales, lugging around his sound equipment and cameras to ask strangers for interviews — led to his sense that people want to do the right thing.

But in a fast-changing world, he also wonders how we can have so many problems in spite of people’s inherently good instincts.

“If a neighborhood is completely flooding, and you see someone who needs help, and you’re in a boat — or maybe not in a boat — everyone will have a decision. And I think those decisions are going to be coming to us faster than we want,” he says. “And I do believe people would help each other.”

New Life makes its world premiere Tuesday at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, one of our 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee.

Main image: Hayley Erin in New Life.