In Above and Below, young Swiss director Nicolas Steiner strings together stories of people living “estranged from society”—including three people living underneath the flood tunnels in Las Vegas, a man posted up in an old military bunker in the desert, and a woman undergoing an immersive simulation to prepare for a space journey to Mars.

This documentary was Steiner’s graduation project for Germany’s Film Academy Baden-Württemberg, and from its synopsis and setup, you might expect an idealistic and naive romanticizing of loneliness with a cowboy spin. But what it achieves is subtler and more honest: a quiet rumination on how and why people escape from “civilization,” accompanied by a landscape that conveys apocalyptic doom, and themes of environmental destruction.

Presented without any commentary, just the careful piecing together of seemingly unrelated scenes and lives, a plotline of escape emerges—specifically, escape from a society that is certainly condemned to a violent end. We hear an astronaut-in-training lament the dangerous rate of population growth, worry about the earth’s future, and vow to never have kids. We see a married couple living deep underneath the fluorescent lights of Las Vegas face the reality of environmental changes with every rainfall, when suddenly their home is floating, then quickly washed away.

The eerie settings—underground tunnels and arid, devastating desert—depict a futuristic and almost alien world. Soon, it seems like these characters are practicing for the inevitable; with all the man-made chaos in this world, they certainly won’t be joining us anytime soon… but the suggestion is that we might join them sooner than we imagine.

But the part of this documentary that makes it honest and refreshing is the concession that society, with all its strict rules and warped ideologies and environmental desecration, isn’t really what these characters are running from. They aren’t leaving behind a soulless and constricting community, but instead abandoning the people who they love and who love them. The most touching moments come when the protagonists are talking about their families, and the various reasons they left them behind—or felt left behind themselves. recommended