Film Review: AXIS is an Ambitious, Anxiety-Inducing Existential Road Trip

Emmett Hughes, star and writer of AXIS. Photo via AXIS film/Aisha Tyler. A bottle episode can be a questionable choice for TV shows. While economical, stripping down the number of characters and sticking to one location leaves you quite vulnerable. If you can't serve up a compelling, emotional story within the confines of the bottle, it'll likely break over your head.   If a bottle episode of a show seems tricky to pull off, a bottle movie would present an even bigger challenge. It's a challenge Aisha Tyler faces head on with her first feature film, AXIS. Even better, she manages to use the bottle as a magnifying glass into the human condition and get people thinking. AXIS is a unique film that touches on the toxicity of fame, the weight of addiction and the battles we all fight that nobody sees.   When we meet the film's protagonist, Emmett, he's a protagonist in name only. We see him on the glossy pages of a magazine (in a wrecked car with soiled clothes on a beach somewhere) but, as he comes to from his latest round of drinking, and begins to answer the calls from people that care about him, or worse still, need him, we find him completely incapable of even a little bit of responsibility or compassion for the people he let down. While he festers in his wreck on the beach, a slew of characters and relationships are established in the calls he receives- from his family, friends, lovers, managers (including Aisha Tyler herself as Louise, Tristan's PR guru). As each call comes in, one angrier than the next, Tristan (played by Emmett Hughes, who also wrote the original screenplay) chases it away with his impressive stash of drugs and alcohol. As introductions go, this certainly isn't a typical one.   When we meet Tristan again, he's in what seems to be a better place, on the verge of starring in a blockbuster film, clean shaven, sober for a year, and in what seems to be a pretty solid relationship. We ride along with him as he heads out of Los Angeles on a personal errand, soon finding out he's still facing the aftermath of his former meltdown. AXIS was shot over 7 days, on the road in Los Angeles, and it's a city made beautiful to behold, full of gorgeous washes of sunlight on the gleaming hood of the car and the palm-lined boulevards we're longing for here come January.   It's all a backseat though, to the journey Tristan takes. As his phone starts to blow up again, we find out that sober doesn't necessarily mean stable, and not everything was magically resolved when he stopped using. This is where the movie and Tristan himself gain their credibility. Putting down the bottle or the needles won't immediately assuage the people you've hurt or mend relationships. Tristan has many of the same problems, now without the safety net of substances to turn to for comfort. These are the moments we start to find him in the aftermath of the mess he made, and empathize with him.   It should be noted there are good things in his life, too. He's found a steady girlfriend who he's got every intention of being with for the long run. He's made some amends with his sister, played by Paula Malcolmson, and he's sought therapy during his recovery. Both his former therapist, played by Criminal Minds alum Thomas Gibson, and his current doctor, played by Paget Brewster (a current Criminal Minds colleague) check in on him and remind him that sobriety is a constant battle, one sometimes harder to fight on the anniversary. For all her brashness, Aisha Tyler's Louise seems to genuinely care for Tristan, and her candid, quick witted nature lends some comedic relief to an often-grim story.  Things start to unravel for Tristan, and, after he finds out (via phone call, of course) about a family emergency, we reach a critical moment in the film. It's here that I found myself genuinely caring for someone I didn't like at the beginning of the film, or even a good half hour in. Immediately, my thoughts turned to whether he'd use again, and ruin the relationship he'd found with his girlfriend and any ties to his family he'd managed to re-bind. A genuine tension builds, solely through increasingly upsetting calls, the coming night, and the uncertainty you have as a viewer for what Tristan will do next.   AXIS excels at defying the odds. It doesn't give viewers the choice to turn their attention anywhere else, or to anyone else. Emmett Hughes does a fantastic job of taking a rather unlikeable character and quickly humanizing him. And while we never see the faces of the people he's constantly on the phone with, we start to get to know them too, thanks to fantastic voice acting and good writing. On top of it all, and without spoiling anything for future viewers, it doesn't go out of its way to explain itself. When I left the Davis Theater after the screening at CIMMfest, I found myself still chewing on it on the way home. While that may lose some people, I like a film that makes you think about it afterwards.   AXIS is just that. You're buckled in beside someone whose life might seem perfect from the outside- nice car, lots of money, about to hit the big time with a blockbuster – and then forced to face his demons with him while the sun carries on shining just outside the car doors. It's a good reminder that there's a lot more to a person's life than what we see on the surface, and the inside/outside struggles we all face, while also speaking to the perils and intrusions of fame. AXIS has a strange pacing and an almost surreal feel to it at the outset, but quickly turns into something you won't soon forget, and stranger than it should be these days, lets you take away what you will from it, without forcing you into one conclusion or another.   It's an ambitious, unusual film that is definitely worth a viewing. Currently, AXIS is running the festival circuit and available to its Kickstarter backers in streaming form.  Check out AXIS film's Kickstarter page here to see where it will show up next, and check out our interview with AXIS' director, Aisha Tyler, here. Then, if you have an opportunity, check it out!  
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Marielle Bokor