Berkeley-born filmmaker Jennifer Phang’s feature debut follows a Bay Area teenager and her young brother as they grieve for the father who abandoned them, while enduring their mother’s younger, increasingly worrisome new lover. The girl’s best friend, a Korean adoptee, aggressively comes out to his Wonder Bread–white fundamentalist parents, just as her brother develops a strange supernatural gift. Phang’s writing fizzes with poetic intelligence, but as a director, she lacks the patience or discretion to integrate it with the fundamentals of storytelling. Her some times student film–ish dramatization, unevenly performed, tends to yield clunky dinner-table histrionics or retreat into a thick atmosphere of poised despair: The family’s suburban complacency already was chafing, we surmise, under constant media intimation of impending mass insanity and environmental cataclysm. But if the movie obfuscates its own moments of truth, at least its elegiac tone is steady and exact. Enhanced by expressive animation and visual effects from ILM alum Catherine Tate, and a brooding score by Michael S. Patterson, Half-Life definitely resonates; exactly when its affecting ache lapses into indie-movie pretense depends on individual taste. But Phang’s talent is real, and it will only benefit from further refinement.

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