Vesper review – exceptional post-apocalyptic sci-fi with a YA edge

If you are going to see one post-apocalyptic, low-tech French-Lithuanian-Belgian film in English this year with Eddie Marsan as the heavy, make sure it’s this one. Co-written and directed by Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper, whose previous collaboration, sci-fi feature Vanishing Waves, was well-received critically but little seen beyond the Baltics and the festival circuit, Vesper plays like a cult film waiting to be discovered. It adeptly fuses a compelling YA-friendly story about a teenage girl’s survival in a hostile environment with dense, thoughtful world-building, the sort required to draw in nerdy-minded viewers. That savvy combination creates a narrative that breathes and expands, like one of the freaky mycelium-like life forms that populate the story.

The title character, played with impressive poise by Raffiella Chapman, lives in a future world that’s been plunged into a new dark age after the spectacular failure of humanity’s attempts to avert environmental disaster with genetic technology. Vesper lives with her father Darius (Richard Brake) who’s paralysed and bedridden, but somehow has his mind and voice channelled into a floating drone with a smiley face painted on it, like Wilson in Cast Away. The dad-drone accompanies Vesper on her foraging trips in the surrounding forest, a ravaged landscape that’s mostly mud and the aforementioned fungal entities that engulf and consume anything dead or near enough to death that’s not moving.

It is in just such a state that Vesper finds Camellia (Rosy McEwen), the survivor of an aircraft crash from one of the nearby citadels, which themselves look like giant mushrooms. These are more sophisticated habitats that trade seeds with less fortunate folk, which includes people like Vesper, Darius, and Vesper’s uncle Jonas (Marsan, on great form) who lives on a nearby homestead with dozens of children whose blood Jonas harvests to trade for seeds.

That’s just for starters. There’s a lot going on, but Buožytė and Samper drop in the explicatory dialogue fairly deftly, and you can sort of fill in the rest for yourself. Like the landscapes in Alex Garland’s recent sci-fi feature Annihilation, or even the world on hallucinogens seen in Midsommar, flowers and bugs and what have you are always opening, closing and scuttling about around the edges of the frame. Apparently, the film was made with a minimum of digital effects and that gives the tech seen here an organic, homemade look that suits the story beautifully. The whole thing builds to a lovely, just-so ending that hopefully the film-makers will let stand on its own without a sequel because it’s so self-contained and neatly done.

• Vesper is released on 21 October in cinemas and on digital platforms.