Independent filmmakers who strive to make challenging, idiosyncratic, blatantly uncommercial features should be applauded and encouraged, no matter how abysmally they fail. Three cheers, then, for Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan, whose joint first effort, For The Plasma, ranks among the year’s most singular movies, even as it also ranks among the year’s most painful movies to endure. From its off-putting title (never really explained, though it’s spoken as a line of dialogue) to its robotic performances and cryptic-verging-on-absent narrative, this shoestring production, shot mostly in a single location on 16mm, couldn’t possibly be less career-driven; it’s a movie destined from conception to be seen by almost nobody. That it actually should be seen by almost nobody is a bummer, but at least they tried to create something more original than the typical Sundance-aspiring ensemble wankfest. A minuscule cult following no doubt awaits.
The first few minutes certainly look promising. Arriving at a house in the middle of nowhere, a young woman, Charlie (Anabelle LeMieux), greets its sole occupant, Helen (Rosalie Lowe), who seems to be an old friend of hers, perhaps from school. Charlie is there to assist Helen with her job, which entails sitting around watching closed-circuit camera feeds from the adjoining woods, making sure a fire doesn’t break out. But Helen informs Charlie that she’s recently superimposed her own, unrelated project onto the task of staring endlessly at live footage of trees. Explaining this requires several minutes of turgid dialogue (sample: “The falsity of the terms doesn’t imply that of the relation, of course”), but the basic idea is that Helen simply chooses to interpret the images with a different purpose in mind, and that altering her purpose correspondingly alters their meaning. She’s been using the static shots of trees to successfully predict the stock market, receiving regular huge checks. So she now needs Charlie to watch for fires.
That sounds potentially fascinating, and it might have been, had, say, Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color) run with the idea. Bryant, who wrote the screenplay in addition to co-directing, doesn’t even bother to crawl a few feet with it. Helen’s bizarre financial wizardry never leads to anything, and neither does her daily habit of circling and underling words in a specific section of the local paper. Instead, For The Plasma consists mostly of mundane scenes of the two women chatting about not much, and shots of Charlie wandering through the woods, looking for the locations where the cameras have been set up. It seems clear enough that Bryant intends Helen’s précis of her methods to serve as a directive for how viewers should watch the movie: We’re supposed to employ the images provided for our own purposes, rather than passively accept them at face value. Maybe that’ll work for some people, but while the film’s 16mm compositions are attractive, they’re not exactly mesmerizing enough to get profitably lost in.
Plus, the actors are a constant distraction. This is LeMieux’s very first onscreen performance, and it shows; she evinces an awkward, forced casualness that makes it seems as if she’s wearing an earpiece in which the directors are hissing “Act natural!” every few seconds. Lowe, who has a little experience, fares slightly better—she at least seems to recognize that For The Plasma needs stylized performances—but still falls well short of the tricky, self-consciously absurdist tone that might have made this material sing. (Think of Chris Eigeman in Metropolitan, or Adrienne Shelly in Hal Hartley’s early films.) It doesn’t help matters that a huge percentage of the film’s dialogue has been inexpertly dubbed in post-production, or that the few other actors who turn up (especially an old man named Tom Lloyd) appear to be reading their lines from cue cards held just out of the frame. The overall feeling of ineptitude is powerful, yet something about its intersection with the obvious intelligence For The Plasma exhibits commands… well, not active interest, perhaps, but at least grudging curiosity. “This movie is terrible, you should go watch it!” reads the headline on the sole IMDB user review currently available. That really is the appropriate spirit.