Dir. Zal Batmanglij
Actress/writer Brit Marling is a curious collection of things: Beautiful, brainy, yet oddly accessible, with a clear penchant for the sort of far-flung, sci-fi literature that Marty McFly reads late at night under his blanket with a flashlight. In short, she is a consummate geek goddess, even though her films steer far clear of laser blasters and warp speed. Instead, they are rooted oddly in-between reality and the fantastic, and the friction that lies between the two.
Her new film has familiar echoes of other stories, including cult indoctrination, skeptics-turned-believers, and a manipulative narcissist heading the organization, but what Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote the script with her, manage to do is connect the dots between all kinds of disparate realities.
On the one hand, you have Peter (Christopher Denham), a young school teacher and documentarian who lost his mother in part due to a cult’s influence, and his girlfriend, Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a former hard-partying playgirl. The two are determined to reveal what they believe to be a cult scam involving a woman who claims to be from Earth’s future; surreptitiously recording the experience of being accepted into the group for a documentary they hope to make exposing the cult and their spiritual leader, Maggie (Marling), as complete frauds. On the other, you have the would-be futurist Maggie herself, dressed in flowing robes, speaking pearls of half-baked, pseudo-psycho patter, there to warn everyone about the impending doom they are about to face.
But then, there’s also a mysterious little girl, Abigail (Avery Kristen Pohl), who attends Peter’s school, where he works as a substitute teacher. Regularly conking out, maniacally devoted to creating dark, black Lego sculptures of futuristic cities and totems, she is every bit the mystery Maggie is. Through it all, Peter and Lorna, try desperately to hold to their stated mission even as Peter begins to sway under Maggie’s spell, until Lorna encounters an alleged federal agent from the State Department, Carol Briggs (Devenia McFadden), hell-bent on bringing “Maggie” to justice for a bank robbery, who convinces Lorna to try and trick the cult leader into coming out into the open so she can finally be arrested.
All of these elements clash against one another, all these different perceptions of what may or may not be true, and the film suggests, unsurprisingly, your belief and understanding depends very much on your perception of things. It makes for a frustratingly ambiguous ending, open to interpretation on many levels, but the filmmakers well understand the alternative — definitively determining whether or not Maggie is as she claims or just a common con artist — would have reduced the film’s significance by half.
The film’s most transfixing moment occurs at the beginning, with Peter and Lorna first experiencing the vigilant rituals and paranoid indoctrinations of joining Maggie’s small throng of followers. Scrubbed, draped in hospital-like white gowns and transferred from one location to another blindfolded, the couple is at the complete mercy of their handlers, the menace of which is not forgotten, even as we first meet the shimmering Maggie. Marling, whose previous sci-fi-tinted film Another Earth, was partially done in by having to play opposite an actor far beneath her ability, is suitably mesmerizing as the ethereal would-be futurist, both iridescent and oddly down-to-earth, and here with Denham and Vicius, among other stand outs, she has a lot more with which to work. Still, beguiling as the premise may be — our desire for such outsized other-worldliness is the very reason cults are so routinely successful, after all — the film still feels a bit under-realized, so taken with its curious tone and pacing that it neglects some basic narrative building blocks, losing coherence in service to maintaining its peculiar vibe. There’s still plenty to consider when the screen inevitably cuts to black, but you can’t help but feel slightly cheated anyway.
Dir. Mike Cahill
You can see why, from a screenwriting point of view, the idea of merging two disparate film genres together would be inviting: The friction between the two elements — the ways in which they work in harmony, and in direct opposition to one another — could be magic. More often than not, however, instead of the two stories weaving together to create a stronger fiber, they fray apart and you end up with something weaker than cheap dental floss.
Mike Cahill’s film, a combination of grief-studded drama and science fiction supposition, works better than most of these hybrids, largely behind the gutty effort of the film’s star, Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Marling plays Rhoda, a smart and beautiful young woman who is celebrating her getting into M.I.T. on the very night a new Earth (dubbed “Earth 2”) , becomes faintly visible in the night sky. Drunk and not paying attention to the road from peering up into the stars, Rhoda accidentally smashes head-on into a car waiting at an intersection, killing a pregnant mother and her young son, and sending the father, John (William Mapother), a Yale professor of music, into a long coma. Years later, after being released from jail, Rhoda takes a menial custodial job at a nearby high school and attempts to assuage her guilt by comforting the man — now living alone and in misery — whose life she ruined that fateful night. Lying to him about being part of a cleaning service, she spends days with him, getting his physical — and emotional — house in order.
The plot might scream melodrama, but Cahill and Marling are after something a good deal more elusive. The film is cut to the bone in places, barely calling attention to large sections of story (the entire four-year prison term Rhoda serves is represented by a single grainy video surveillance image of her staring into space from her prison cell), and reducing most of the side characters to something like apparitions; and all this to focus intently on Rhoda, and her unassailable guilt. When she enters a global essay contest to try and earn a spot on the first shuttlecraft to approach the second Earth, we pull for her not just because we would like to see her succeed at something, but also so she has some reason to live other than to carry the weight of a lost family on her soul.
Alas, as good as Marling is at representing the stoic, caring Rhoda, she vastly outshines her co-star, Mapother, who has the more thankless role of being the drama’s stooge, spending the vast majority of his screen time not having any idea who this kind and beautiful young woman is who has come to rescue him from despair. The film also quite self-consciously shoots for the shaggy intimacy with the kind of in-and-out-of-focus handheld shots that “NYPD Blue” made famous a generation ago, but here, in this otherwise quiet drama, that decision feels stagey and unnecessarily distracting. Still, there’s no questioning the sad longing in Rhoda’s eyes when she peers into the doorway of the man whose life she’s destroyed, or the way she stares up at the second, mirror-image Earth, hovering just out of her gentle grasp.