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Imitation Girl
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by Jay Seaver

"Doesn't quite have all the pieces, but that's part of the point."
4 stars

Calling "Imitation Girl" somewhat unformed is probably less hurtful than it would be for many other films; it is all about the experience of being unformed, or at least not as certain of oneself as one might like. It might be a bit more satisfying in certain ways if the end brought all the threads together in a more definitive way, but that would almost be like looking at the experience from afterward, rather than the middle.

This one starts in the New Mexico desert, where a wormhole opens up in the sky and something falls out, a black liquid that takes the shape of the model on the cover of a men's magazine. Not knowing the slightest thing about being human, she stumbles along, fortunately found by a friendly immigrant from Iran (Neimah Djourabchi), who brings her home and introduces her to his sister (Sanam Erfani). A quick study, the new girl picks up both English and Farsi fairly quickly, but doesn't seem to learn much more about the outside world or meet many other people. Meanwhile, in New York, the girl whose body the alien copied (Lauren Ashley Carter), is shooting another porn movie, and is honestly kind of bored with the whole thing. She's got a nice-enough boyfriend (Adam David Thompson) and just met a pretty nice girl (Marsha Stephanie Blake), but also seems very excited when her childhood piano teacher (Catherine Mary Stewart) suggests that she may be interested in the open auditions for the conservatory where she teaches.

So, what's it all about? It could be any of a lot of things or maybe even all of them. There's an intriguing idea about being a performer, especially a woman, where you send a sort of sexy shell out into the world and the people who encounter it fill it with their own ideas - it takes just a couple of fairly non-specific words from the duplicate after Saghi & Khahar talk about refugees for the audience to begin construction on a similar backstory for her - that the originator must eventually confront. "Julianna Fox" does a lot of "teen" fantasies, and there's a neat scene as she arrives for her audition and, confronted by kids who are authentically just getting out of high school, where she wipes off her makeup and it's not entirely clear whether in doing this she's becoming more herself or trying to play the more innocent student.

It's a neat take on Julianna, and one of the most notable things about the film is that writer/director Natasha Kermani and actress Lauren Ashely Carter consistently take pains to make sure that Julianna is as interesting if not more so than her alien counterpart. Playing the stranger in a strange land isn't actually easy, but it's the big things audiences pay attention to there: The wide, frightened eyes as she staggers around like she hasn't figured out knees yet, the heightened sense of discovery and struggle for the right word in even basic situations. Carter does all of those well, but it's great that she and Kermani don't just make Julianna the alien's inverse; rather than being visibly unhappy or cynical, Julianna is just well-adjusted enough to know that she's got more talent than what she's doing calls for, even if she may not have the ambition to get past it. There's nothing in Julianna's story that requires the other half of the story, and Carter gets across the idea of her having to discover her dissatisfaction to wrestle with it very well.

It helps that there are some well-spotted performances around her, too - Catherine Mary Stewart only appears in a couple of scenes as piano teacher Mrs. Phan but that first, where she says nothing to outwardly indicate it but clearly knows what her old student is doing, wants to help, but doesn't want to get too close to the porn, for instance. There's a nice role for Lewis Black, and good work by Neimah Djourabchi and Sanam Erfani as the siblings who take the second Julianna in. Kermani is also pretty good at making the best use of her resources on a low-budget film, from an opening that stops just short of feeling like she's padding the film by showing just how the magazine got to where it was to some nifty but not over-elaborate visuals: The last scene has two or three things in it that impress either by being a simple but unnerving effect or visually playing with the ideas of reflections and symmetry in unexpected ways.

The film ends on one of those striking but ambiguous images, and I won't pretend that this isn't a bit dissatisfying in some ways; it's not so much that a viewer will likely spend the previous hour-plus coming up with theories about backstory or symbolism as that they've invested in both Julianna and her double. It's natural to want an ending, but half the point is that these are young people - newborn, even - and they can still decide to be something else, although there's a great deal of risk and no guarantees there. It's something that can feel cheap or indecisive, and certainly will to some, but Kermani has included enough good details in the film that it never feels like she's saying that what comes next doesn't matter, but that she wants to capture the excitement and the fear of what comes from stepping out of what one knows in its purest form.

The details make it something special, doubly so since they're as much about the film's human half as its alien mythology. It's enough to make "Imitation Girl" interesting even if you like a more complete story.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31686&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/09/17 02:35:13
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