OXV: The Manual (aka Frequencies)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/26/13 15:24:23
SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It is not necessarily difficult for an alternate-reality sci-fi film to hook an audience; it just needs a clever premise and the chance to present it in a familiar setting before playing out how strange it makes the world. The trick is coming up with a story that's more than "hey, this world's weird!" and playing it out so that the audience can relate to it. That's hard, and by making it work with "OXV: The Manual", Darren Paul Fisher and company have made an extremely impressive little movie.That hook? A bunch of young children taking a written test blindfolded to determine their "frequency" - how lucky or in sync with the world they are. The standard scale runs from 0 to 100, but Marie-Curie Fortune (Lily Laight) scores a 127 and Isaac-Newton Midgley (Charlie Rixon) scores a -7, so far off that the universe tries to separate them when they stand near each other for even a minute. As teens (Georgina Minter-Brown & Dylan Llewelllyn), they try to test that phenomenon for different reasons - though both are geniuses, Marie is extremely high-functioning but emotionally detached, while Zak is empathetic and utterly smitten. With the help of friend Theodore-Adorno Strauss (Owen Pugh), the adult Zak (Daniel Fraser) finds a way to connect to Marie (Eleanor Wyld), but for as happy as it makes them, the idea behind it may tear the world apart.
Quantifiable luck has been used in science fiction for a long time, for the exact same reason that it's a tricky thing to do well: It digs into philosophically juicy concepts of free will and determinism, and while that's heady stuff to think about, it can get the story either running on rails or utterly random until it dissatisfyingly breaks its own rules (Larry Niven once described his bred-to-be-lucky character Teela Brown as having the ultimate superpower, author control). Fisher for the most part avoids that by building his universe very precisely, on the one hand having this tendency toward good or bad luck determine its characters' destinies as much through human prejudice as making the environment bend to their will and on the other hand by eventually hinting at a parallel history that has enough recognizable ideas to have a certain ring of truth.
The central pairing being fairly nice helps as well. All iterations of the cast are impressive, and cast with a sharp enough eye that the aging is thoroughly believable, and Eleanor Wyld is able to reap the benefits of Lily Laight and Georgina Minter-Brown establishing how unfeeling Marie is as a side effect of her gift when she starts thawing out. Wyld does a nice job of taking a Marie from imitating the rest of humanity to joining it, ably communicating both the humor and horror of no longer having the universe make things easy on her. The moment when she first starts to feel something is just right, and would be without its bit of visual gimmickry. Daniel Fraser is quite good as Zak, making a good case that this guy who knows just how much the world has it in for him would not give in to fatalism. He doesn't need quite so much help from the other Zaks to establish a baseline, but he builds on it, proving to be quite an appealing lead.
Fisher proves a fairly impressive storyteller beyond just creating a well-imagined alternate world. The film is structured so that the same events are occasionally reviewed from a different perspective without making the film feel repetitious or having the new information undercut the truth of how it played out the first time. Even after the movie has established itself as Zak & Marie's love story, he's able to expand the canvas without feeling like he's drifting too far from what the audience cares about. He does start to drift off the beam a bit toward the end - the ultimate resolution is rather touchy-feely for a movie that adheres to its internal logic so rigorously until that point.
It's a nifty-looking movie, too, using good cinematography, choice of location, and set decoration to make its world feel a little bit off but functional. Things can sometimes seem a little thrown-together in a way that suggests limited resources rather than world-building, but there's still room to do things like use light and color to differentiate how the various characters see the world. The soundtrack by Blair Mowat is fairly capable, too, stepping up when the movie calls for it.That's got to happen with this sort of independent science-fiction movie - there's no room for big-budget CGI effects, so the filmmakers must squeeze everything they can from the idea. Fisher gets a lot of juice into "OXV", creating an intriguing world and then making "opposites attract" it's most important story.
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