Anytime you see a film in the New Frontiers category at Sundance, it's a dicey proposition. The category tends to showcase a lot of edgier and experimental films that push the boundaries of filmmaking, and as a result, you never know for sure what you're going to get. Sometimes New Frontier films are intriguing, sometimes puzzling, and occasionally dumbfounding, but they're almost always interesting and a welcome break from the usual fest fare. Sometimes, I'll see a New Frontier film and not be wild about it at the time, but it will linger in my head and make me think long after the typical fest fare has come and gone. Such was the case with Reversion, the second feature directorial effort by Mia Trachinger, whose first film, Bunny, garnered her "Someone to Watch" and "Best Feature under $500,000" nominations at the Indie Spirit awards in 2001.
I caught a public screening of Reversion at the Egyptian near the end of the fest. There were a good many walkouts (though I tend to expect that for New Frontier films, and consider it more a reflection of the diversity and edginess of the category than of the films themselves) but there were far more people who stuck around for the Q&A, and quite a pack who followed Trachinger out of the theater afterward to talk more about her film.
Reversion, set in an unspecified near-future, follows Eva (Leslie Silva), one of a group of human mutants for whom past, present and future exist on one, constantly skipping timeline. With no sense of past, the mutants lack the ability to learn from failures and mistakes; with no sense of the present and its relation to anything else, they act largely on impulse; with no sense of the future, they can't see the results of their actions and therefore have no moral compass to guide them.
We see Eva tooling around town with the distractingly good-looking Marcus (Jason Olive), her sometime-boyfriend. Because she can see "skips" of the future, Eva knows that it is her destiny to shoot Marcus, but she doesn't know the precise events leading up to that moment. Marcus is fatalistic about his death -- we all die eventually, and so far as Marcus is concerned, there's not anything Eva can do about what's to come, so they might as well just enjoy the time they have. Eva and Marcus are running around chasing another young mutant, Ray, who might or might not also be Eva's lover. Ray has run off with a gun that he got his hands on during a parking lot holdup (and we can guess how that gun is going to later come into play).
For the first third or so of the film we jump around time as the mutants do; Trachinger is clearly trying to give us a sense here of what it's like to have no clear sense of linearity, and the effect is a bit overwhelming and distracting, although it's effective in creating a sense of unsettling nervousness as to what's going to happen next, which I would assume is what she was going for. Eva and Marcus are trying to get to the beach; when they get there, it's a light-saturated sanctuary, presumably a place where mutants come to be healed. There's an obvious philosophical and spiritual correlation there between the hectic pace and disconnect of the modern world and the need for baptism or renewal, but Trachinger leaves that largely up to the interpretation of the viewer.
From this point on, we stop with all the jumping around in time and proceed in a more-or-less linear fashion to the payoff with the gun; the closer we come to the gun in Eva's hand, the more unsettled and paranoid Marcus becomes. Whereas earlier he was nonchalant about the prospect of his death, once he's gone to the beach he becomes almost frantic in his efforts to change the future and prevent Eva from killing him; ultimately, his own paranoia could prove to be his undoing, adding another layer of political and philosophical statement onto the underlying message of the film.
Trachinger has an interesting core of an idea here with the idea of linear time-mutants who live and function without an ethical compass or sense of repercussions, and the film overall (as is often the case with science fiction) is highly political and philosophical beneath the surface. She intersperses segments of the film with old-style documentary-type segments about child development; these segments appear to be rooted in the child development theories of Erik Erikson and, to a lesser degree, Jean Piaget. I get what she was going for with these segments -- she's obviously trying to make a statement here about moral development and its relation to having a linear sense of the impact of our actions in the present on what happens in the future.
The segments feel a bit jarring in relation to the narrative of the film, though, and I'd expect that much of what Trachinger is attempting to say with them is well over the heads of anyone who's not at least passingly familiar with Erikson and Piaget. She might have better served her purpose in that regard by working aspects of Erikson's theory into the storyline itself, rather than interrupting the flow with what feel like out-of-place vignettes. That time could have been used to greater effect by focusing more on the societal impact of the mutant population, or by giving some more clarity around the people at the beach -- are they a group of rebel mutants seeking to "cure" others who are linearly challenged? A cult of time-warping mutants seeking spiritual growth through their difference? We don't really know, and as a result that segment of the film feels a bit trippy and not as relevant to the rest of the film as it might have been.
Those criticisms aside, Reversion is a bold and edgy film that explores some interesting philosophical and political ideas that are particularly relevant in a time when our leaders seem to make most of their decisions without regard to past, present or future. Trachinger posits the question: what would happen if we all lived that way, without regard for the impact of the decisions in our daily lives around those we come in contact with? The answer, she seems to say, is all around us now; the storyline about Eva, Marcus and the gun is merely a parable for the control we have -- or don't have -- over our own destinies.