“Coherence” (2013) — VOD Review

COHERENCE Theatrical Poster

COHERENCE Theatrical Poster, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

COHERENCE (2013), the debut feature from writer-director James Ward Byrkit, is an indie science-fiction thriller that gets a lot of mileage from its reportedly miniscule budget. Byrkit both wrote and directed COHERENCE, which is based on a story developed by Byrkit and Alex Manugian (who plays the character of Amir in the film). It was produced by Lene Bausager, making the film a joint US-UK project.

COHERENCE writer-director JAMES WARD BYRKIT

COHERENCE writer-director JAMES WARD BYRKIT. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

The movie’s official website summarizes the film in a logline as follows:

On the night of an astronomical anomaly, eight friends at a dinner party experience a troubling chain of reality bending events. Part cerebral sci-fi and part relationship drama, COHERENCE is a tightly focused, intimately shot film that quickly ratchets up with tension and mystery.

The astronomical anomaly is a comet passing close to the Earth. The relationship drama involves Em (Emily Baldoni, credited here as Emily Foxler), who joins her friends at a dinner party thrown by her friend Mike (Nicholas Brendon). She starts to have strange experiences early in the story. Even before she parks her car in front of Mike’s house, the screen on her smartphone cracks — while she is using it to talk to her husband, Kevin (Maury Sterling), as the comet streaks overhead.

EM (EMILY BALDONI) and KEVIN (MAURY STERLING) in COHERENCE

Emily Foxler and Maury Sterling in a scene from COHERENCE. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Such events continue to occur, growing larger in scope and more ominous in appearance as the plot thickens. Parallel to these paranormal happenings is a more mundane, but just as potentially destructive, process going on among the group of friends. As with many such gatherings, there is a lot of interpersonal baggage — some of it out in the open, some hiding in plain sight (the proverbial elephant in the room), the rest kept secret.

For example, Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), a California New Age type (at least on the surface), reveals to Em that Amir is bringing Mike’s former girlfriend, Laurie (Lauren Maher), to the party. This revelation, which reactivates a triangle of jealousy, is the first of many stirrings of the social pot in this story. The pot begins to boil once paranoia (lying dormant in most of the characters) is awakened by the group’s realization that there are doppelgängers of its members running around outside (and, perhaps, already inside) the house.

Lauren Maher, Emily Foxler and Maury Sterling in a scene from COHERENCE.

Lauren Maher, Emily Foxler and Maury Sterling in a scene from COHERENCE. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

In fact, due to an apparent alignment of parallel universes, the world of the film shrinks down to one particular point: this group of eight flawed adults and the house at which they have gathered. According to Wikipedia, “The film is based on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. The title Coherence refers to a quantum state known as coherence, in which different versions of reality can still, temporally and spatially, interchange (or interfere) with each other.” But are all the strange events in this movie really due to a quantum physics-based anomaly caused by the comet? Or could it be that the ketamine that Beth brought to the party has caused a group psychosis? Or is it something else entirely? The film is full of red herrings for the viewer to chase.

Although fascinating, he film’s premise is not as unique as some reviewers have led moviegoers to believe. Scott Tobias of The Dissolve discusses PRIMER (2004) and the “Twilight Zone” television series as potential influences on Byrkit in his interview with the director. Another film that has significant similarities to (and differences with) COHERENCE is the much more recent +1 (2013), which I reviewed recently on Tumblr. +1 is close to being the adolescent/young adult version of COHERENCE’s largely middle-aged story, although the former movie involves a meteor, rather than a comet, and an otherworldly force that is clearly responsible for the state of coherence. By comparison, Byrkit’s film does not provide the viewer with a neat, tidy, comfortable explanation — which makes it the superior film, in my opinion.

Shot over five nights in Byrkit’s house, the movie is a lesson in what can be accomplished using a stripped-down, streamlined film-making process. Byrkit had a very small crew and did not use a script. Byrkit and his DP, Nic Sadler, followed the actors around the house as they improvised scenes based on Byrkit’s story-line and character sketches. This process allowed the actors a lot of freedom to develop their own characters and relationships to other characters.

The result is a film that is both visually and dramatically impressive. For example, the film’s hard cuts (which were initially jarring for me) gradually begin to make sense, stylistically and thematically, as the story-line plays out. This editing choice (one of several prescient moves by film editor Lance Pereira) makes the viewer unsure of where the film is in terms of time and place.

COHERENCE premiered at the Austin Fantastic Fest in 2013 (where it won the Best Screenplay: Next Wave award), then proceeded to win at several other festivals, including Sitges in 2013 and Imagine, Portland IFF, and Boston Sci-Fi in 2014. Released in the US in 2014 by Oscilloscope Pictures, it had a limited engagement last summer in theaters, where it grossed about $69K at the box office. It is currently available on VOD (iTunes, Amazon InstantGoogle Play and VHX) as well as on DVD. This review is based on one viewing on Amazon Instant, where the film is currently a Prime selection.

FRISCO KID’S RATING: 4 stars