Austin Film Festival Review: Brave New Jersey

Orson Welles' alien-invasion broadcast turns a town upside down

Tonight might be our last night on Earth. That’s what the good residents of Lullaby, N.J., believe on the eventful night of Oct. 30, 1938.

That’s the night that Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre aired their now-legendary radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a program that is reported to have scared the bejesus out of gullible folks who believed the Halloween show when it announced that Martians had landed in West Windsor Township, N.J. How widespread the panic actually was in actuality is debatable, but the idea of group hysteria incited by a misleading media message is tempting comedic fodder. As the people of Lullaby mobilize to fight their attackers, co-writer and director Jody Lambert (Of All the Things) seizes the moment to reveal the town’s characters, their backstories, and their future dreams.

Taking place over the course of one long night, Brave New Jersey trots out the usual panoply of small-town figures. There’s the milquetoast mayor Clark Hill (Tony Hale, delightfully droll as usual) and the blowhard businessman Paul Davison (Sam Jaeger), along with his devoted but emotionally shortchanged wife Lorraine (Heather Burns). Peg Prickett (Anna Camp, of Pitch Perfect films) is the local schoolteacher who turns into a dynamo at the barricades. Reverend Ray Rogers (the reliably funny Dan Bakkedahl of Veep), a lackadaisical shepherd to his flock, has his faith tested by the Martian invasion, and a brain-addled World War I vet (veteran thespian Raymond J. Barry) can for once put his war-ready instincts to good use as the citizens dig trenches and plot the defense of their town. One love story emerges while another one bites the dust. Everyone’s true colors come to light, but by morning when the panic evaporates, so does the night’s magic.

Lambert’s frothy concoction is a zippy comedy, whose players bring these characters to life. The story’s intersection of fact and fiction lend it a special aura that keeps the viewer looking for the invisible seams. The opening credits state: “Everything you are about to see is true,” a boldly impossible declaration that has us chuckling from the get-go. The murkiness of Corey Walter’s nighttime camerawork could stand to be punched up a bit, but the low-budget film’s period production design is on point. Although the state is sometimes cast as a laughingstock, Brave New Jersey treats its citizens as comedy’s advance guard.

Brave New Jersey screens again Monday, Oct. 17, 7pm, Alamo Village.

The Austin Film Festival runs Thu., Oct. 13, through Thu., Oct. 20. See for schedule and info. Follow our continuing coverage of the fest at www.austinchronicle/austin-film-festival.

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Austin Film Festival 2016, Austin Film Festival, Brave New Jersey

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