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by Jay Seaver

"Not quite faultless, but still fairly sharp."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Faults" feels like it should be something along the lines of "The Last Exorcism", not so much in plot (although there are some similarities there) as it's a chance for an often-overlooked character actor to shine playing the lead. When it's that, it shines; if the story were just a bit better, the movie would be something really special, though as it is, it's pretty good.

The character actor is Leland Orser, playing Dr. Ansel Roth. Once a big name on the subject of cults who even had his own talk show, he's now washed up, stealing towels from hotels that book him to read from his book to small, disinterested audiences. The latest was a special disaster, but two in the audience (Chris Ellis & Beth Grant) approach him, saying that their daughter has joined a strange group and they don't know what to do. He suggests the risky "deprogramming" option, which is unpleasant and will cost them - Roth has bills that desperately need paying. They agree, and Roth has Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) kidnapped and brought to a motel. Claire looks to be a tough nut to crack, though, and there's something a bit off about the family dynamic he'd be returning her to. And then...

Well, I'll say little more, except that writer/director Riley Stearns has concocted a script with the ability to surprise, even as it regularly entices the audience to pay close attention to what's going on. It's not quite as tight as it could possibly be; there's a thread that seems fairly extraneous, although saying which one it is wouldn't be right. A larger issue, I think, is that the whole movie, from the start to the end, would benefit greatly if there were more evidence that Roth was actually an authority worthy of respect. It's not a hole in the plot as it is, but it would just make everything work better.

Even without that, though, Leland Orser takes the rare leading role and runs with it, playing a set of very funny scenes at the start which establish just how far he's fallen, almost setting the film up as a comedy, and keeping that sense of haplessness even as the movie starts to accumulate actual stakes, playing it off a sense that he does have some expertise in the area, frustration that things have gotten out of control, and what's left when he seems to have lost what control he had. He gets to do a little of everything, and do it fairly well, and it's nice to see one of those actors who looks vaguely familiar show what he's capable of.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead hardly fits into the "overlooked character actor" category, but she's still someone whose actual work has seldom lived up to her promise. She's darn good here, though, giving a ton of conviction to lines that might seem absurd otherwise, playing every scene she has with Orser just right, and generally giving a performance that suggests that it might be worth a second look later. There's a fine group of supporting actors behind them, too - Jon Gries and Lance Reddick add menace while also serving as a sort of comic relief, while Chris Ellis makes an argument that he deserves the sort of chance at top billing that Orser got sometime soon.

Stearns makes a good feature debut as director - he strings together more gripping scenes than you might expect, quietly implies a period setting that puts smartphones off the table without making a big deal about it, and makes the puzzle pieces of his script fit together fairly well. The ending suffers from a bit of a missing ingredient, but for a first-timer this is pretty impressive; I'll be interested in seeing what he comes up with next.

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originally posted: 07/25/14 16:09:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.

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Directed by
  Riley Stearns

Written by
  Riley Stearns

  Leland Orser
  Mary Elizabeth Winstead
  Chris Ellis
  Lance Reddick
  Jon Gries

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