The promotional materials for Soft Matter call it a cross between The Shape of Water and Get Out, a description that is troublesome not only because it’s wildly inaccurate, but also because the only discernible similarity between it and Get Out is the fact that the main protagonist is black. Sadly, that distinction alone is enough in many people’s eyes to lump such films (often dismissively) with all other “black movies,” even though race plays no part in Soft Matter, while in Get Out, it’s central to the plot.
In truth, Soft Matter isn’t particularly similar to The Shape of Water either, except that the featured monster resembles the amphibious beast in Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar winner (who in turn resembles Abe Sapien from Hellboy, who in turns resembles The Creature From the Black Lagoon). In Soft Matter, the creature is a sea god that emerges from a mop bucket inside a janitor’s closet in an abandoned hospice. If that makes sense to you, you’re already one step ahead of me.
As it turns out, the hospice isn’t completely abandoned. A couple of rogue doctors, Grist (Hal Schneider) and Kriegspiel (Mary Anzalone), are conducting experiments on the remaining few patients in order to uncover the secret of immortality, but the end result is the subjects transform into hideously deformed mutants. It’s at this point that, for some unknown reason, the fishy “Queen of the Seas” shows up to warn them not to continue their experiments, because only it can grant immortality.
Into this madness drops a couple of Afro-millennials, Kish (Ruby Lee Dove II) and Haircut (Devyn Placide). Haircut is an up-and-coming graffiti artist, and Kish is a friend who suggests he use the supposedly haunted nursing center to showcase his work, offering to promote the affair using her connections in the art world. She also has a handlebar mustache tattooed above her upper lip, for reasons that go as unexplained as everything else in this film.
Kish ends up being the primary heroine in the battle against the fish god, which seems intent on wiping out everyone in the rundown building in response to the mad scientists’ hubris. She’s a refreshing choice of protagonist, not only because she’s a black woman, but also because she’s a type of black woman we don’t often see on screen. She’s unabashedly weird (as the mustache implies) with an offbeat, blasé hipster sensibility who is nonetheless unafraid to flash a spunky, take-charge fire when it’s time to act.
Dove is the breakout star here, her sense of low-key comedic cool drawing all eyes to her in every scene she’s in. Her performance helps offset the failures of a movie whose quirk factor often goes off the rails. I certainly appreciate its stab at originality in a genre too often reliant on well-worn narratives, but quirky just for quirk’s sake can prove frustrating — as epitomized by the opening credits, whose lettering blinks on and off rapidly, making it difficult to read, if not seizure-inducing.
The credits, of course, aren’t even remotely the wackiest part of a film that features musical numbers, animated sequences, breaking of the fourth wall, intentionally low-fi special effects that may or may not have been created in MS Paint and the aforementioned nonsensical plot. While there are moments worthy of a chuckle, many others are head-scratchers that might border on pretentious hipster chic if the cast wasn’t so likable and if it didn’t all feel quite so good-natured. Also helping to balance the oddness are the flashes of talent from writer-director Jim Hickcox, who delivers some attractive shots using vibrant, Suspiria-like colors.
The quirks would feel more welcome if they served a purpose in the story — a method to the madness. As it stands, the weirdness comes off as something out of the pretentious art world the movie seems to be parodying. If there is indeed a deeper meaning to all of this, I’d need someone in a beret and a handlebar mustache to explain it.
All things considered, though, Soft Matter is a pleasant surprise. It overcomes what seem to be extreme budget limitations to deliver a jolt of unfettered imagination, including the out-of-the-box audacity to ignore traditional racial casting precepts.