One of my biggest cinematic blindspots has long been low-budget and independent cinema, especially of the contemporary variety. For decades, Hollywood cinema has been emblematic of a certain look, style and formula. In a box office-driven industry, it is these remakes, reboots and tentpoles that often dominate the discussion. Just outside the studios, though, the real ground is being broken, and risks are being taken. Whole cinematic movements stem from the up-and-coming talent developing these films. They’re brave, they’re original, and they’re often labors of love for their young creators. With that, I’m turning our attention today to the low-budget horror thriller Low Life. Here’s everything you need to know! 

Low Life follows the story of Benny (Wes Dunlap). The young man runs a YouTube channel composed of videos where he confronts pedophiles and online child predators. However, his thinly veiled sense of control cracks when he helps a young girl (Lucy Urbano) trap her friend’s father, a middle school math teacher, with some startling proclivities (Lucas Neff). As Benny’s hastily made plan spirals out of control, will he be able to bring things together? Jake Dvorsky, Hunter Milano and Anthony Sorrells costar in the movie. Tyler Michael James directs Low Life from a script by Milano and Noah Rotter. 

Lucy Urbano gives a skeptical eye to Wes Dunlap in Low Life.

Finding the words to talk about Low Life is a challenge. It goes without saying the script delves into a hard, complex subject matter. While the movie never depicts any actual handling of these predatory practices, there is a lot of locker-room talk (especially as Benny tries to set up Jason (Neff)). So, that’s the long way of saying trigger warning kids. 

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In truth, it’s fascinating to watch Low Life handle this challenging subject. A big factor in its success is the performance of relative newcomer Wes Dunlap. The role (according to IMDb) is credited as his feature-length debut. Dunlap brings a formidable complexity to a character who can only be described as a struggle. In the wrong hands, Benny is aggravating and annoying. While Dunlap does hone in on the cockiness so common in YouTubers of a certain age, he finds more in this young man. While he certainly has a brash exterior, Dunlap is equally fascinating to watch in the quiet moments. There’s a complexity to him. There’s something beneath the surface that is even more interesting to watch. It will certainly be fun to see where this performer goes from here. 

 It’s difficult to classify the use of horror in Low Life. For those looking for action, this movie actually takes its time to percolate. The first hour of the narrative is a slow burn before exploding into a tense ball of craziness towards the middle of the second act.

In truth, Low Life‘s terror is deeply rooted in the narrative’s uneasiness. Perhaps it’s the nature of the movie’s subject matter, but there’s an unnerving heaviness that hangs in the air. As the action descends on Benny’s house, the tension is palpable.

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The movie’s supporting performances make the slow build all the more effective. Lucas Neff is disconcertingly unassuming as the math teacher and supposed pedophile. At the same time, Jake Dvorsky and Hunter Milano ground the narrative as Benny’s friends who are pulled kicking and screaming into this nerve-wracking situation.

This is a spoiler-free review. So, how to talk about the last act? As the action explodes in the film’s second half, Milano and Rotter’s script is impossible to predict as things spiral further out of control. There were multiple points where I thought I knew where things were going before the action would just as suddenly shift into new territory. It’s sudden and jarring, and it works with the breakneck second half of the feature. 

Lucas Neff stares across the table at Wes Dunlap in Low Life.

With that being said, as a viewer, I found myself struggling with the eventual course of the ending especially relating to Benny. Bad is the wrong word. Don’t get me wrong; this movie is bleak. It’s hard, and it’s complicated. In a movie this dark, I found myself wanting something (or someone) “good” to hang onto. Ultimately, nothing is that easy in this universe. While the film is undoubtedly more interesting this way, it is so much more challenging. 

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Low Life, as I said, is a hard one to classify. The movie is trapped somewhere at the intersection of horror, drama and thriller. It’s grimy. It’s tense, and it’s not an easy sit. However, with a cast and crew of up-and-coming talent, it’s at the same time refreshing. With the all-encompassing power of Hollywood, it’s easy to overlook the outsider and the low-budget cinema percolating all around us. At their roots, movies like this are not just an insight into the talent of the future; these are labors of love. Support your independent filmmakers.

Those into edgy and grimy works of independent horror should add this to their lists. Low Life is now available on streaming and VOD outlets. 

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Kimberly Pierce
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