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by Jay Seaver

"Effect & Cause" is seldom pulled off this well."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I like to tell people, when recommending sci-fi stories in any medium, that if you don't find your head hurting a little during a time-travel story, or at least see the potential for that headache, then it's probably not a great idea for a time-travel story. That's just the idea, of course. The real key is whether the storytellers can make the mental gymnastics worth it, like John Weiner and Danny Kuchuck do here.

Little Jessie Graver (Jadin Gould) doesn't know it yet, but she's about to have the worst birthday a kid can have. Sure, she's received a neat present - her first cell phone - but later that night, her mother Sara (Jodi Thelen) will fall into a coma when a live electrical cable falls into the pool. She's taken off life support, and eight years later, Jessie (now played by Julie Carlson) is a sullen teenager who wants nothing to do with her father (Toby Huss), spending her time hanging out with her friend Damon (Johnny Pacar) and his girlfriend Mia (Brooke Vallone). While going through some of her old things, she finds that old phone, never used, and on a whim calls her old home phone number. A little girl answers, and she and Jessie seem to have a lot in common.

Now, we can all see the general direction Kuchuck and Weiner are going with this. This basic plot outline has been used by a number of films, but few of them handle it quite so elegantly as this one does. The key to that is the fine performances by Gould and Carlson. They're close enough in age that their strikingly similar appearance is crucial for the audience's belief - movies which posit a longer gap can get away with actors with more superficial similarities, but this film doesn't have that luxury. Fortunately, they also do a nearly-flawless job of portraying the same character. They've both got the same curious streak, the same way of talking, and the same skeptical outlook toward the unusual events occurring in their lives.

(Skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know how Weiner and Kuchuck handle the potential paradoxes of their story.)

That's crucial because the movie resets itself, not just occasionally but constantly, as the Jessies converse on the phone. A conversation that starts out as teen-Jessie trying to get kid-Jessie to do something that would show up in the present does not end with a special effect that shows the world changing, but with the scene metamorphosing into her remembering the conversation (and denting the mailbox) as having always happened. When kid-Jessie does something that has an even larger impact, teen-Jessie's whole situation will change, sometimes to the point of her having to rediscover the phone again. This happens several times over the course of the movie, but because Carlson and Gould are so good and so in sync, it never feels like we've got to get to know the character over again, or that her being able to change the past would be an empty victory because the last iteration of teen-Jessie feels too different from the first to be the same person.

The simple, no-special-effects style that the budget dictates keeps the plot grounded without sacrificing suspense. Kuchuck and Weiner don't need to give us some technobabbly hooey about destroying the very fabric of time and space to keep us involved, and as teen-Jessie learns more about why her life is the way it is, she is faced with a simple, but inescapable quandry: The only person she can get to believe her and act on her behalf is her younger self, but that's a lot to put on a ten-year-old kid, even if it wouldn't put her own well-being in jeopardy (or be futile, if time travel doesn't work that way). The plot itself is simple, but effective, and the filmmakers do an impressive job of giving Jessie new challenges without the movie feeling like it's padded, repeating itself, or otherwise arbitrary.

Julie Carlson and Jadin Gould are the standouts in the cast, not just for how they believably evoke each other, but for the Jessie that they both create: Smart, more into science and BB guns than fashion dolls without coming off as boyish, loyal and brave. Johnny Pacar is nice as the older Jessie's best friend (Allen Alvarado plays the younger Damon); I like the way they play together as supportive rather than burdening each other with their problems. Toby Huss, especially in the early parts of the film, does well making Lee an imperfect father.

The film does have some weaknesses; it's the sort of time-travel story that is built around the gimmick in its plot, and supporting performances and subplots which don't directly bolster that gimmick are often allowed to get clunky. It's a nifty enough example of puzzle-box construction that I'm more than willing to forgive it those shortcomings to see it tie a plotline into a tight little knot.

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originally posted: 09/10/09 01:26:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/26/09 jamie thornton This is really an exciting movie I would love to see it in the theaters 5 stars
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Directed by
  Danny Kuchuck
  John Weiner

Written by

  Johnny Pacar
  Julie Carlson
  Allen Alvarado
  Jadin Gould

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