Review: Third Star


Because of my morbid sensibilities, I have often thought about how I would want to die if I were terminally ill. I’ve wondered what I would choose my final experience to be, and I know what it is: I want to skydive without a parachute. But with that knowledge firmly tucked away, I can hope that it never comes to that. But I think it’s something worth considering. Watching movies about people with terminal illnesses and how they choose to spend the final moments of their lives is never an uplifting experience, but if done well it can give you a new appreciation for life. The tears (or almost tears) give way to some profound realization that, hey, I don’t have to jump out of a plane to avoid a slow, painful death.

Third Star is like that.

Third Star Theatrical Trailer

Third Star
Director: Hattie Dalton
Release Date: August 21, 2012 (VOD)
Rating: NR
Country: United Kingdom

Before I sat down to write this review, I went back and read what I had said about the suicide-centric mockumentary A Necessary Death. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t treading old ground. Even though the films are very, very different, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between them. The focus on terminal illness and the final attempts at happiness are among the most heartbreaking things that could ever be put in a film. But A Necessary Death is much more focused on death than Third Star is, and thank god for that. If Third Star was any more depressing, I would need therapy.

James (Bennedict Cumberbatch) is dying of cancer. For his 29th birthday, he goes on a trip with his three best friends: Miles (JJ Feild), Davy (Tom Burke), and Bill (Adam Robertson). Their final destination is Barafundle Bay, a beach that has some significance to James. If it’s explained, I missed it amidst the occasionally difficult to parse British accents, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he wants to go there. It’s not about his final moment, but it is about his final birthday. This will be the last time he sees Barafundle Bay, and it may be the last time he’s together with all of his friends. Although Davy and Bill have been with him throughout, Miles has been distant. In fact, none of them expected him to come along on the trip.

Bennedict Cumberbatch and JJ Feild in Third Star

And that trip is the entirety of the Third Star. The film is about the journey of those four characters, as they are forced to confront both their fears and their failings. A few other people show up throughout the film, but most of them act as comic relief. The gruff looking fisherman-type in short shorts has his moments of comedy and profundity, the ferryman who seems about shocked that anyone actually wants to use the ferry, and the people at the Renaissance-ish fair have their amusing little spats. Even though their screen time is short, they definitely add some much-needed spice. That’s not to say that the four protagonists aren’t interesting on their own, but when the four of them are together there’s more to worry about. You can fairly assume that James won’t have any terrible things happen to him while side characters are introduced, and that bit of breathing room is appreciated.

But in general, Third Star is quite funny. It’s one of those rare films (like 50/50, which also has a cancer-stricken protagonist) that truly blends comedy and drama well. In all but the most dramatic moments, there is some kind of remark that helps to soften the emotional blow that scenes can have. Even though they’re not on the brink of death, Bill, Davy, and Miles are put in positions where the only way out is some serious thought and soul-searching. It gets heavy, but these people are friends, and presumably have been for years and years. So when one character puts another one into an uncomfortable place, they can come back with a simple “Fuck off” and the tension eases a bit. They may be angry, but everybody gets angry. Having the group helps as well, because there is always another person (or two) to act as a mediator. It’s striking how well the humor fits, though, because I never once felt it was inappropriate.

Bennedict Cumberbatch, JJ Feild, Tom Burke, and Adam Robertson

A lot of this comes from the humanity that all of the characters have. They all feel like real people, and they feel like longtime friends doing longtime friend things. They’re there for James, they’re worried about James, but they are people first and foremost. One of the benefits of more independent productions is that dialogue can just be dialogue. It can character-build without doing anything to drive the plot forward. Since there is really not much of a plot (to be as reductive as possible: four people go to the beach), it’s all character-building. I enjoyed my time with the characters. They’re not the best of people, but their flaws felt natural and real to me. All of them are good people and, more importantly, good friends. If this is the last birthday that James is going to have, it’s a good thing he has it with them.

And then the film gets sad. When James talks about death, where he thinks (or hopes) he will go when he dies, or how he wants to die, it’s hard to watch. The last time I honestly cried at a movie was Ocean Heaven, which also shares some similarities to Third Star, although it lacks the humor, and although I’ve shed a few tears in the meantime, they were never out and out sobs. It’s hard to make me cry. Not so much making my eyes water a little bit, making them actually go down my face is a challenge. I never really know when it’s going to happen. When the first tear rolled down my cheek during Third Star, I knew that it had succeeded at whatever it set out to do. I was ready then and there to turn it off and write this review with it being just as positive as it is now. Then things got heavier, and it went from one tear to a stream of tears. I started sniffling and my throat began to hurt as I choked back sobs.

Bennedict Cumberbatch, JJ Feild, Tom Burke, and Adam Robertson in Third Star

And I wasn’t just crying for James, whatever his fate. I was crying for Miles and Bill and Davy too. When the credits rolled, I was satisfied with the ending. It made sense, and I don’t know that it could have ended any other way (I mistook a recurring image for a metaphor when it was something far more literal), but it was very hard to watch. But it was tasteful and effective. There was nothing manipulative or cheap. It felt just as real as anything else, and that’s why it was so difficult to deal with. 

There will be people who aren’t as affected by Third Star as I was. I expect they’re in the majority, as evidenced by the film’s 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. But seeing that other people disliked it does nothing to dissuade me. For someone who reviews quite a lot of movies, I like to think my pretension level is pretty low. But every once in a while I need to take a bit of a hoity-toity stance, and this is one of those time. Anyone who says that Third Star is a whole lot of nothing, or that there is nothing there, simply doesn’t get it. As far as plot goes, no, Third Star there isn’t much there, but as I like to think I have given some evidence of here, the plot is essentially irrelevant. Maybe it’s predictable, maybe it’s even silly, but none of that matters. That’s not the point. 

Third Star is about life, death, and the bumpy road between them. And it is very bumpy. As one of the protagonists might say: It’s kind of like having sex with an anorexic.

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