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{Review} Settlers (2021)- Little House on the Red Prairie

The newest release from IFC Midnight presents a timeless story on a different planet. On a remote homestead amongst the Martian frontier, a refugee family from Earth clings to hope for a better life. But when strangers appear in the surrounding hills and attempt to run them off, nine-year-old Remmy (Brooklynn Prince, THE FLORIDA PROJECT) is faced with the desperate reality her mother (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY) and father (Jonny Lee Miller, TRAINSPOTTING) have tried so hard to keep from her.

Settlers takes a historically familiar tale and places it on future Mars. Different planet, same people. How much really changes when the characters are still very human?

Mars or Earth–pioneers live in rural isolation. Same is true for the titular Settlers. They raise livestock and grow crops, carry water buckets, and have an outhouse. The little daughter even wears a bonnet! Mom and Dad are determined to make the farm solvent with good old elbow grease and grit. Turns out they’re not the first to settle here though, leading to conflict when the prodigal son of the previous owners returns.

You’d be justified in thinking Settlers is about pioneers staking claims in old Oklahoma. Even the guitar-heavy (and beautiful) soundtrack would fit. The fact that you can take the above story and place it anywhere, in any timeframe, really is the heart of the matter. Population outpaces resources and people spread farther to find more- in this case all the way to Mars. Exposition implies the human race’s situation has been dire for generations. We’ve waged a “war for less and less” for who-knows-how-long. But don’t expect CGI action sequences or Martian creature effects. Settlers is very much a human-character-driven, slice-of-life tale.

Courtesy of IFC Midnight

Events progress quickly with little background given to the family’s circumstances. We know Earth is just a body within view of a telescope and the parents don’t have much to tell their daughter other than it’s “not what it used to be.” The farm lies inside a protective bubble with breathable air. Not knowing what’s out there- both beyond the atmospheric boundary, and the capsule story we get- effectively places the viewer in isolation with the family.

Chapters named for each character divide the story. I wouldn’t say that the eponymous character is each chapter’s protagonist, but it’s their decisions that drive the story forward. In the first, dad Reza (Johnny Lee Miller) has his shotgun ready to defend his family. Second is mom Ilsa’s (Sophia Boutela) chapter. Her resourcefulness makes her an excellent pioneer wife and mother. The former settlers’ son (Ismael Cruz Cordova) drives the last chapter.

All three chapters show effects of others’ decisions on Remy, Reza and Ilsa’s daughter, as she grows from age 9 (Brooklynn Prince) to 18 (Nell Tiger Free.)

The actors carry the story beautifully. Each brings a range of emotions that’s realistic, never overdone, even when a lot is being asked of them. The last third of the film raises questions of procreation and species survival between two characters who make a thoroughly inappropriate pairing. This is a traumatic segment, and Nell Tiger Free from Apple TV’s deliciously creepy Servant, is put through the ringer. She goes from fighting for her safety to deadly calm decision-making. The film is not pushing this idea as positive at all though, and in fact uses it as an example of a supposedly practical-minded character’s weak grasp of reality.

Settlers raises real questions about decisions made during hardship. How cheap is life? Or how precious? If we give up what makes us human in the dogged pursuit of survival, is it even worth it? The film doesn’t have a conventional happy ending, but freedom to decide things for herself might be as good as it can get for Remy.

Settlers is being distributed by IFC Midnight and is in theatres and on demand July 23rd.

Courtesy of IFC Midnight