by Alvin G. Burstein
This movie, an indie, the second effort by Anthony Scott Burns, who co-wrote, directed and filmed it, won favorable attention at Canada’s 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, and a positive rating by the rating accumulator Rotten Tomatoes. Ever since my childhood encounters with the Gothic tales of Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft the horror genre has attracted me. Most of those who reviewed the film used that descriptor, so when Come True was released by Amazon Prime, I popped a bag of Orville Reddenbacher into the microwave, and prepared for a treat.
As the movie opens, we meet the main character, eighteen year-old Sarah, as she wakes wrapped in a sleeping bag, lying on a child’s slide in a playground. Incongruous but not horrifying, but provoking, hopefully intentionally, unanswered questions. We follow her as she bikes home, making a point of avoiding her mother as the latter drives off, and we watch as Sarah goes home for a shower and some breakfast. Later, at school, we see her struggle to stay awake in class. Leaving, she comes across an flier advertising for subjects in a university sleep lab study. Sarah applies for the position, is enrolled, and told to show up the next day.
That night, which she spends with best friend Zoe, she tells of this opportunity. Neither remark on how Sarah’s absence from home impacts on those who live there, one of a series of loose threads in the story’s plotting which I find myself dismissing, swept along by Julia Stone’s virtuoso portrayal of the protagonist. Petite, blonde, a wide-eyed waif who gives a sense of expecting things to get worse, Sarah’s vulnerability evokes sympathy and concern.
The next day, at the sleep lab Sarah meets other subjects and, along with them, is ensconced in a curious ribbed, helmeted costume, wired to a computer and left to sleep. And to dream.
As a survivor of the 1950’s Dement days at the University of Chicago, I found the sleep lab depicted in the film a campy Star Trek version of real sleep research, but I remained willing to surrender disbelief. In what follows, we get to follow Sarah into her dreams, and it is quite a journey, scheduled to last an unspecified, but clearly large number of sessions—some of the other participants speak of years.
Sarah becomes increasingly disturbed by the nighttime adventures, and, also, by her realization that Jeremy, the lead graduate student on the project, is stalking her. He is working under the supervision of Dr. Meyer, who seems to be running a tight ship, but without much control, another of those loose threads.
There are impressive elements in the movie. One is Sarah, whose vulnerability is protected by brittle bravado. Here is her confrontation with her stalker: “You just thought, Hey, since I don’t ever leave my nerd den, this is probably my best chance to meet the future Mrs. Nerd, so, if I just follow her around, maybe she’ll fall for my magical fucking nerd charms.” And Sarah’s rageful panic at having her cell phone pick-pocketed while she is asleep at the laundromat, is piercingly true to life. Another is the content of Sarah’s nightmares, not so much horrifying as surreal and progressively disturbing to her, finally evoking seizures. The dream content is, contra the suggestion of many of the movie’s reviewers, unremittingly and impressively Daliesque, with explicit Jungian referents, rather than Freudian.
Burns, with Stone’s support, succeeds in generating a praise-worthy mood of weird unease. But flaws remain. Those include, in addition to the loose threads already mentioned, a shoddy soft porn episode lacking in any contribution to the narrative, and failures in script supervision—the sudden appearance of slippers on Sarah’s feet in the middle of a sleepwalking trek, the coming and going of her eye injury and the sudden reappearance, without context, of her cell phone. And then there are all the loose ends.
The brilliance of the mood creation achievement, oddly and regrettably, heightened my feeling of being let down by the flaws.