Haunting, moody, and provocative, this indie drama deals with a young couple’s growing fascination with what they perceive to be a cult nestled in San Fernando Valley. The opening moments are vague and ominous: we see our leads pull into a driveway and follow instructions over the narration that hint, subtly, that something sinister or lewd is waiting for them at the end of their checklist. They demonstrate a secret handshake that is required to gain access to the basement where the handlers promise that all questions will be answered. When they get there, they are greeted with an immense surprise: about a dozen people anxiously awaiting the arrival of a young, blonde woman named Maggie, hooked up to an oxygen tank, who tells her story. A while ago, she suddenly woke up in East L.A., lost and confused, wearing garbage bags for clothing and eating what she could find. After a few weeks, she was picked up by a professor, who helps her to reach an unlikely conclusion, that she is actually from the future (about 70 years out, apparently), and that she must achieve a few goals to improve oncoming events before exposure to the germs and pollutants of our time finally kill her. Now the couple has to reconcile their contemporary, urban cynicism with an increasing sense of existential confusion over the young woman’s level of truthfulness. Should they hold their breath and wait for proof of the woman’s claims, or should they go along with it and embrace her message, as the others have?
The film is decidedly low-key; financed primarily by the Sundance Institute, the film does not contain any high-profile action, special effects, or set pieces. However, in terms of technical flair, the film is elaborately constructed and wildly effective. From the pin-drop quiet of the basement scenes to the haunting, dark lensing of Los Angeles, the filmmakers use a wide range of purely aesthetic effects to create an intense, melancholy mood that is very unique and gives the film a sense of realism and immediacy. The internal and external threats are both very well presented, and strike a chord with this mid-20s male. The external conflict is simple: the duo can’t let the other “believers” (ostensibly cult members) catch on to their cynicism and disbelief. However, their internal conflict is more pressing, and becomes almost tangible. As the male protagonist defiantly cries out, “There is a woman in the Valley who says she’s from the future, and people are believing her!” The two thoroughly modern, cynical individuals we follow have to decide whether the blocks they have against believing Maggie’s story are instinctive or justified. If they are being swayed, is it for the right reasons, or is it because of some sort of deep-seeded insecurity or longing (as the woman begins to suspect of her mate)? The central performances are uniformly excellent, as they would have to be for this film to be a success, and Brit Marling (as Maggie) has soft, fragile speech patterns that provide a fantastic contrast to the two leads’ geeky, clumsily hyper-modern sensibilities; while it is Marling (who also co-wrote the film) who is getting most of the acting accolades, I think the protagonists’ performances are just as crucial and, thankfully, successful at acting as both audience surrogate and as carefully-drawn, specific characters.
The film presents the notion that the 21st century mind may be too world-weary and self-assured for its own good, and it does a great job of turning the film itself into an examination of that theory. Around the halfway point, Maggie sings a song that will be readily familiar to most viewers, while claiming it is a popular song from “her time.” In the theater, many people laughed upon recognizing the lyrics from the song, but in the moment, I was so taken by the young woman’s claims, I started to justify her presentation of that song as being from the future. While I would, no doubt, dismiss her claims as being completely fabricated in real life, while watching the film, I wanted so badly for her to actually be from the future that I did not react snidely to her singing. This is what the movie is going for, to show the audience, firsthand, what it feels like to get caught up in a belief that may sound, at first, completely ludicrous, as most cults do. The fact that it worked on me, a deeply cynical atheist individualist who believes in discussion and science over faith, it a testament to the impact of this film, and the wild success the filmmakers have in maintaining the haunting, contagious mood for the entire film.
Highly Recommended to fans of more low-key, emotional sci-fi, such as Solaris or the work of Ray Bradbury. I’d suggest going into this one with as little knowledge of its content as possible, and with the least cynical moviegoers you can go with (or just see it alone). A truly facinating, haunting film.