Review: H. (Attieh & Garcia, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

As enigmatic as its title, H. eludes easy description. The best I can come up with is that it’s something like Coherence meets Upstream Color. Since both of those are obscure indie scifi films, I don’t suppose that summary helps people much. Perhaps the best introduction would be to say that it screened under the San Francisco International Film Festival‘s “Vanguard” category, which features “unusual, unique and sometimes challenging new work from film’s bravest and boldest artists.”

Unusual, unique, and challenging is about right. H. eschews traditional narrative form, splitting into two stories loosely interwoven but never quite connected. One story follows Helen (Robin Bartlett), an elderly woman who lives with her husband in the outskirts of Troy, NY. Childless, Helen obsessively cares for a lifelike baby doll, known as a “Reborn Doll,” hosting parties for other doll owners and creating YouTube videos on realistic ways to interact with the dolls. The second story follows another Helen (Rebecca Dayan), one half of an edgy artist couple. This Helen is the other’s near opposite: young, attractive, urban, and, most noticeably, fertile.

But both Helens fall victim to a series of strange phenomena that begin plaguing the town of Troy when a strange astrological object hurtles through the sky and plunges into a local lake. The object appears to be the head of a large, Greek-style statue–only, strangely, it floats. As if the Reborn Dolls aren’t creepy enough, we’re also treated to eerie hallucinations, random blackouts, mass hypnosis, and the appearance of a peculiar roving centaur.

H. defies classification. Is it sci-fi? Sci-fi with a dose of fantasy? Surreal sci-fi with a dose of absurd fantasy? No matter. I doubt directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia (whose bio pictures, by the way, make them look like they’d be quite at home in an episode of Portlandia) care about categories. And neither do I. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure what to make of the film. The Classical allusions seem to be a good starting point. They are, after all, plentiful and obvious. But then my mind hits a wall–what do these references signify? For example, besides the centaur (or perhaps as another incarnation of the centaur), there is an elegant black stallion that the characters begin to spot in unexpected locations (in the middle of the road, next to downtown storefronts). But what should we make of this “Trojan horse”? If there are dots to connect, they are too scattered for me to find the pattern.

But lately I’ve begun to think that I ought to begin clearing my mind of its cloying need for structure and sense. What if I just sit back and be at peace with the seeming randomness? I’ve done that before–even at this festival (with Jauja, for example). Jauja, however, despite its wandering plot, had other elements to grip me. H. is not quite there. The acting in it is not terrible, but it’s not good either. (The actors seem too aware that they are acting.) There is not enough emotional drive to make the oddness compelling, as there is in Upstream Color. And the premise–the meteor-precipitated series of strange events–is starting to feel a bit too familiar.

Regardless, I’ve decided I need to have a more open mind. H.‘s rewards may not be equal to its challenges, but it’s still good practice.