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Vesper takes place in a world where the ecosystem has completely collapsed. Wealthy people are able to live in safety, inside a specially designed community called the Citadel. Everyone else has to fend for themselves. That isn't the most original science-fiction idea -- Elysium did something similar -- but what directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper do with it is fresh and fascinating. They tell their story through the eyes of a young girl, suggesting along the way that the youth are the ones who will save our world from the catastrophes created by the adults. After all we've lived through the past few years, that theme is comforting.

At age 13, Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) carries a lot of responsibility on her shoulders. She cares for her ailing, bed-ridden father, Darius (Richard Brake). To earn money, she collects valuable seeds that she sells to her uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan), who runs what is essentially a child labor ring. Under his rule, kids and teenagers either work trying to find more of those seeds, or they have their blood taken by him for sale. Jonas is the kind of guy who presents himself as a pragmatist, just doing what he needs to do to get by in a tough situation, although that's just a convenient cover for his mobster-like ways.

Traversing through the woods one day, Vesper discovers a downed airship containing two citizens of the Citadel. One of them, Camellia (Rosy McEwen), is able to be saved. After recuperating at Vesper's home, she offers to take the girl and her father to the Citadel, so they too can live in security. Vesper's ever-faithful drone, which communicates her father's thoughts to her, isn't sure the offer is on the up-and-up. And when Jonas figures out something fishy is going on, he does whatever he can to stand in the way.

The building of a cinematic world is breathtaking here. There's a lot of fungus in this movie. It grows on trees, throbbing out of the bark. Weird tentacle-looking things spring forth from the ground. Weather is never sunny, and the sky is perpetually cloudy and gloomy. Consequently, the film feels like it takes place in a deformed version of our world. This unique look goes a long, long way, setting the stage for the story while simultaneously making the rotted, decayed landscape the characters exist in a palpable presence. We therefore understand to a greater degree why Vesper wants out of there so badly. Many sci-fi movies don't seem set on an Earth that's recognizable. It's a strength that Buozyte and Samper keep traces of our planet familiar (and avoid an excess of CGI).

Chapman is excellent in the lead role, showing how this girl forces herself to steel up when she's terrified inside. With no real help, she's got to push fear away in order to survive. The actress projects intelligence to match her inner strength, most notably during the moments where the character puts her science knowledge to work. Scenes between Chapman and Marsan have an edge of tension. Whereas many actors would have made Jonas outright evil, Marsan goes a more subtle route. Jonas is scary because we sense he's containing very bad impulses, and the façade he shows the world is artificial. The dynamic Vesper and Jonas have induces nervousness whenever they share the screen.

A couple good action scenes are in here as well, to provide more overt thrills. Added together, all these elements infuse Vesper with a point of view. The story is about the resilience of the young, the way they uncannily see through the messes adults make. Earth is a dire place when the movie starts. By the end, we know Vesper has a vision for the future. She may only be one single person, yet her fortitude is enough to help get the ball rolling. This is a brainy sci-fi survival tale that proves inspiring in ways we don't initially anticipate.

out of four

Vesper is unrated, but contains some strong violence. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.