'Coherence' Makes a Multiverse Out of Nothing

Micro-microbudget mindbender makes every restriction a virtue

Emily Baldoni in Coherence

Necessity is the mother of invention. So when a film deliberately restricts itself to a couple of rooms, one garden, and a small stretch of road, the filmmakers better get pretty damn inventive.

Established shorts director and storyboard artist James Byrkit gave himself a seemingly crippling set of limitations with his debut feature, Coherence. It's an almost Dogma 95-purity sci-fi tale, set around one night at one house, and mostly taking place in one room.

Four couples gather for a pleasant dinner party on the night that a comet is passing by the Earth. One guest (Emily Baldoni) starts telling stories she has heard about weird events that have taken place during such near-miss interstellar events, of people reporting bizarre events. There's one tale of a particular night in Finland that seems too weird to be true, and everyone laughs it off … until all the power goes out. And then things start to get strange. As in, Finland comet strange.

Byrkit has created a bottle drama, where the eight characters wander in and out of the camera's view. But the question then is what happens when they're out of sight. As the audience and the guests fumble toward understanding, it's the strength of a phenomenal ensemble cast, improvising a night in traumatic quantum physics, that keeps the narrative moving. When it finally switches from the social unease of mid-period Woody Allen into a bourgeois version of John W. Campbell's sci-fi paranoia classic Who Goes There?, Schroedinger's Cat is firmly out of the bag.

There's a superficial similarity to Another Earth, in that it deals with parallel existences. But really, that's a false comparison. Whereas that slice of hipster SF played like a poor imitation of any one of a dozen Astounding Tales, Coherence builds up layers of reality and alternatives. It does for quantum physics what Primer did for time travel. By simply staying loyal to its central mechanic, and making it intriguing to the lay person, Byrkit achieves a balancing act that would be tough for a well-scripted narrative. The fact that this was mostly improv'd, with the cast being kept in the dark about a lot of what was happening, is stunning.

Of course, it helps that his cast, drawn from a pool of his friends, is a who's who of TV character actors (proving that sometimes it really is who you know.) There's one particular dose of kudos to be handed out: The criminally underused Nicholas Brendon (Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) appears as a partially washed-up actor, a part he carries with a wounded, overly sensitive damage. Seriously, why is he not getting more work?

It has to be said, Coherence wasn't on anyone's radar before Fantastic Fest. But it's been one of the true buzz titles since its first screening. Taut, plausible, and metaphysically terrifying, it is an object lesson that there is no restriction in a great idea.

Fantastic Fest presents Coherence, Monday, Sept. 23, 2:05pm.

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