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Monday, 6 September 2010

Cryptic (2009)

Directors: Danny Kuchuck and John Weiner
Stars: Jodee Thelen, Johnny Pacar, Toby Huss, Jadin Gould, Brooke Vallone, Nicole Cannon and Julie Carlson

On 4th July, 2000, nine year old Jessie Graver had a rather memorable birthday. Her family was moving into a new house, a cool one in the mountains with a pool, and her mother gave her a mobile phone, her first one. 'Who do I call?' she asks. The intention is that she should call her mother, naturally, whenever she's in need, but she never gets the opportunity because her mum is promptly electrocuted in the pool in a tragic accident. Nine years later, as she turns eighteen, Jessie rediscovers the phone and on a whim rings her old number. Amazingly there's still enough battery to make the call and a little girl answers, one with whom she seems to have rather a lot in common. It isn't just the same phone number, it's the same address too, along with the same poster on the same crack in the same wall and the same target in the same tree outside. What's more they both seem to have put up that poster and that target. Yep, they're the same person.

It's an intriguing concept for a science fiction story and it's one that layers nicely. The eighteen year old Jessie has problems: she doesn't get on with her father, even less with her stepmother who stepped in really quickly after her mother's death. She may be the most well adjusted of the people around her, given that one friend lives in a trailer with his alcoholic father and another is pregnant and threatening suicide, but there's a history that she can't ignore. Except now she has a direct line to the past and, once she realises what she really has, she realises that she has an opportunity to change it. And what an opportunity! How many times would a little foreknowledge have made all the difference for you? I can think of a few in my life and that's just the things that I wish I'd have done differently. As we soon discover, there were things done in Jessie's past by other people that are carefully unravelled like layers in an onion.

Cryptic is a refreshing and very welcome piece of independent cinema. It's always good to see a science fiction film that relies on character and story rather than special effects, and there isn't an alien, a spaceship or a ray gun anywhere to be found in this picture. The idea comes from the physical relationship between matter and energy, something generally reserved for theoretical physicists and science fiction writers but, as esoteric as the science may get, this only uses that science as the springboard for a notably human story. It never ceases to amaze me how often that approach is used in quality science fiction literature but how rarely in the movies. This film, shot in 2008 for a mere $200,000, is a great example of why that's a huge loss to the filmgoing public and a primer on just how to do it right. There are no gimmicks to grab us in and no tricks to keep our attention because it doesn't need them. It has a story and that's enough.

To bring that story to life are a number of actors who ably assist the deceptively lazy unfolding of the plot. Julie Carlson is the older Jessie Graver and she carries the largest burden of the film's requirements on her shoulders. So conditioned are we to Hollywood gimmickry that initially we wonder why she seems so normal but that's precisely the point. Carlson only has a bit part in a feature and the lead role in a short behind her, but she has vast potential. Bizarrely, Jadin Gould, her nine year old counterpart as the younger Jessie, has far more experience, with a whole slew of TV roles and feature films behind her. There are recognisable faces here to TV fans. Jessie's mother Sara is Jodee Thelen, who played all three seasons of Duet. Her father Lee is Toby Huss, who has long runs in Nikki, Carnivàle and King of the Hill behind him, among others. Her friend Damon is Johnny Pacar, a regular cast member on Flight 29 Down and Make It or Break It.

While the actors are what brings the story to life, it's the story that shines brightest here and it's executed with panache. There are paradoxes waiting at every turn when you try anything that messes around with time and I'm not going to say this one escapes them entirely, but it mounts what may be the best attempt at consistency in such a story I've seen in a long while. Every time I thought it was going to come a cropper because of an obvious imminent paradox, it carefully explained it away without ever getting caught up in obfuscation. The story is clear and engaging, the details that hold it together there but never thrust in our face. That very fact may be the best recommendation I can give to this picture, because it's so rare an accomplishment that it's close to being an endangered species. For intelligent story based science fiction done right, you have to go to the indies and this is one that's well worth your attention.

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