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Minor Premise
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by Jay Seaver

"Bad science can lead to some bad fiction."
2 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's a stretch at the start of "Minor Premise" when I wondered how a movie shot during quarantine was already finished and on the festival circuit, so cut off did it seem from the rest of the world even when a character was supposed to be delivering a lecture. That proves not to be the case, and it's kind of a shame; working their way around that sort of logistical challenge, whether it was part of the on-screen action or not, would have made for a much more interesting movie than the rickety Jekyll-and-Jekyll-and-Hyde-and-Hyde thing that viewers get.

The man in question is Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan), who had long worked with his father Paul (Nikolas Kontomanolis) on technology to read and edit memories, although that was a mess - the father tried to take credit for the son's work and while a working prototype was built, crucial information was missing for their intended project of editing consciousness. Months later, a building at the college is being dedicated to Paul Kochar, but department head Malcolm (Dana Ashbrook) is pushing the difficult Ethan for results and presentations to the board; Ethan's ex-girlfriend Alli (Paton Ashbrook) has also returned to the university, as established a figure as he is. It's the sort of situation that inspires rash self-experimentation.

At least, it does in movies; in real life, it would seem like a long shot that Ethan's basement laboratory, with no graduate students or other team members to check his work, or any sort of proper protocols that include an actual control group, would get any sort of funding, and even if some rich eccentric did bankroll him, it seems unlikely that he'd be able to publish any sort of peer-reviewed paper, no matter how lax the standards have grown, or have what he has created gain government approval for commercial or therapeutic use. This may seem like party-pooping, nit-picking complaints to make, but it's indicative of how much the filmmakers are going to sweat the rest of the details or have supposedly smart people approach problems later, and it's also frustratingly uncreative: The movie is made up of tropes that were silly when they first started getting used for simplicity's sake decades ago, and it's big "what-if" idea is basically phrenology with more modern terminology on top.

The really frustrating thing is, all of this isn't even in service of making a streamlined, thrilling narrative; director Eric Schultz and co-writers Justin Moretto and Thomas Torrey create a downright goofy scenario where different mental states cycle out at precisely timed intervals that just so happen to alight with the exact tops and bottoms of hours (dumb, but useful for the audience that has to keep track of it), but they don't use it very well on any scale. There's seldom any tension in how Ethan has to get some useful chunk of work done in six minutes, or how these passing hours are bringing him closer to some sort of collapse. They start subplots out of a sense of apparent obligation - Malcolm just has to knock on the door and discover Ethan isn't himself - and then do nothing with them, and the way Alli being there to assist is handled is just as frustrating as she literally walks in and out of things depending on whether they want Ethan to have someone to talk to or whether the story requires she be ambushed, despite it clearly not being a good idea to leave him on his own. She never particularly looks like this marathon effort is taking anything out of her, either.

Sathya Sridharan and Paton Ashbrook at least commit to what they're given, even if that's not much (especially in Sridharan's case, since he should be getting the chance to create ten memorable variations on Ethan but is never given the opportunity); they handle the commit to the pair being intelligent people who care for each other, in the specific way that Alli is going to be professional and friendly despite Ethan's arrogance having hurt her before, a chemistry between them that is not necessarily being pushed in the expected direction. And while Ethan's lab is silly in concept, it's a fun place to be an on-screen mad scientist from how the lighting is just the right combination of shadowy and fluorescent sterility, with blackboards, cobbled together computer systems, and a memory-reading barber's chair that matches the mood. If nothing else, Schultz and company know what they want this movie to look and feel like and nail that.

Unfortunately, that serves as a nice coat of paint on a movie that is dumb from its silly remote lectures to the one last twist that everybody knows is coming likely before the film even starts. It's a mess that could have created much more intrigue had it been just a little more smartly organized.

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originally posted: 08/31/20 15:12:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Eric Schultz

Written by
  Justin Moretto
  Eric Schultz
  Thomas Torrey

  Sathya Sridharan
  Paton Ashbrook
  Dana Ashbrook

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