Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/15/20 11:39:40

"The Moorhead & Benson team is 4-for-4."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL 45: The three previous feature films by the directing team of Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson have earned them a great reputation in sci-fi/horror circles and been the sort of movies that fans build a festival schedule around, but their particular combination of meticulous construction, genre awareness, and emotional tensions has seemingly conspired to keep them from playing to a larger audience. "Synchronic" seems like a movie that could go wider; it's smart and witty and occasionally exciting without seeming quite so clearly focused on its own intricacy.

It starts with a couple of visitors to New Orleans having a really bad trip when they try new designer drug "Synchronic", and they're not alone - EMTs Steve Denube (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (Jamie Dornan) are finding themselves responding to calls that defy belief more frequently. Getting stuck with a needle at the scene of an overdose has Steve getting some tests that reveal a brain tumor, something he keeps from Dennis, who has problems of his own when his 18-year-old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) seems to have been at the scene of another overdose and then vanished.

Where things are going, plot-wise, is clear enough that it's fairly easy to forgive the fair amount of shortcuts and coincidences Benson's script employs getting there, although it creates an odd sort of tension: The mechanism they built requires Steve to be empirical in how he approaches his rescue attempt and for the audience to pick up on details even as the situation is generally chaotic. It's ultimately something that the filmmakers manage to make work, and even play into the personalities of the characters: Steve is smart, but sloppy, an armchair scientist at best, so his stumbling and having to guess right without knowing the whole picture is a match for how he deals with his diagnosis and how Dennis approaches his more conventional search and the strain it puts on his marriage. People don't suddenly get super-competent when they've got a mission, and these guys are used to flying by the seat of their pants at their regular job.

Having it play out that way means they need an impressive performance from Anthony Mackie, and he delivers. Steve is a smart-guy trainwreck from the start, and Mackie is able to find the more vulnerable moments that come from facing the especially personal challenges (compared to the merely life-and-death stakes of working as a paramedic that reward detachment) without cheapening the bulk of the film when he's brusque or abrasive. Steve's no reluctant hero, but he's an impressively desperate one as he manages his fear for his own life by obsessing over Brianna's. Jamie Dornan complements him well as Dennis, grounded but with nervous energy, while Katie Aselton and Ally Ioannides do very nice work as his sometimes-contentious family.

New Orleans provides a fine backdrop; it's a city where tourists and locals alike can suddenly find themselves sinking into the historic and the strange even before a drug that gets one unstuck in time enters the mix. Moorhead serves as cinematographer and seems to work closely with the visual effects team; transitions between now and then are elegantly disorienting, feeling like they were somehow impossibly done on set rather than just handed off to an effects house. The storytelling is clear and effective, though there's a rough spot near the end. It's a climax that made me realize that they haven't so much avoided the big finish before as they've usually streamlined to have fewer moving parts at the big moment than they do here.

It works, though, and in the way that doesn't rely on examining the structure or a lot of post-film pondering of implications to appreciate it. "Synchronic" may not be quite so conceptually ambitious as the filmmakers' previous films, but it's still the sort of sci-fi thriller where the filmmakers know that their audience understands how the this sort of movie works and lets them play along while making something that winds up being a bit more than just pieces sliding into place.

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