Meryl (Justine Clarke) is basically the human incarnation of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, except without the "survival" part. As she rides the train home after her father's funeral, animated thoughts of fiery collisions and strangle-happy strangers zip into her head as abruptly as they cut into Look Both Ways' otherwise live-action proceedings. That Meryl's nightmares are adorably hand drawn doesn't make them any less dreadful or persistent; later she imagines being eaten by a shark (while in a swimming pool) and the ickiest possible consequences after she sleeps with photographer Nick (William McInnes) soon after they meet.
The fact that they first cross paths at the site of a tragic train accident — and that Nick (who also struggles with visions of doom) has just found out he has cancer — is a typically morbid spoke in Look Both Ways' death-obsessed machinery. Fickle fate pulls the strings of the Meryl-Nick pairing, and of those around them, including Nick's exceedingly angry coworker Andy (Anthony Hayes) and his reluctantly pregnant ex-girlfriend Anna (Lisa Flanagan). A pair of nearly wordless performances anchor Look Both Ways' emotional core, as a train driver who's run over a pedestrian and the pedestrian's widow struggle with their grief — and eventually connect over a sympathy card featuring a seascape painted by Meryl, appropriately enough.
A festival sensation by Australian writer-director and animator Sarah Watt, Look Both Ways isn't actually the feel-bad movie of the year. It's probably the sunniest movie about death you'll ever see, and one that captures the awkwardness of life with unusual accuracy. Its unglamorous characters react to disasters like real people would, tempering their shock with distractions such as kids' birthday parties or impulsive physical intimacy. Watt's visually inventive style keeps Look Both Ways from being too sentimental, to a point. As the film winds down, it seems overly eager for closure, resulting in pop song–montage overload and a mawkish group cry that just happens to transpire during the film's single rainstorm. Like the double meaning of the film's title — look before you leap, but remember it's OK to leap! — it feels a bit shallow and glossy after all that inspired gloom. (Cheryl Eddy)
LOOK BOTH WAYS
Roxie Film Center
3117 16th St., SF
Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center
1118 Fourth St., San Rafael
See Rep Clock for showtimes