Be Careful What You Wish for: Parallel (2016)

I fully support independent and microbudget films, and for that very reason, I screen them with the same critical eye as I do more mainstream productions. Putting on kid gloves would do these films a disservice. So, despite the earnestness and originality on display in Parallel (2016), I must say that it’s not a very good film. Funnily enough, I’d just recently wrote, “Most films I can more or less imagine what it’d be like to shoot and edit”; looks like Fate has come asking for proof. As I wrote on another occasion, the ways a film goes wrong can be very instructive. So grab a beer and sit back—this’ll be a long one.

Neil (David Magowan, also writing, producing, and in charge of stunts) and Heather (Faye Sewell) meet at a company party and fall in love. Later, they encounter an old man in the park who introduces himself as John Machlis (Brian Carter) and claims to be a psychic who can show people their opposite-reality selves, called “parallels.” Heather and Neil start going to him separately and become fascinated by their parallels and the perverse things they do. Heather manages to snap out of it, but Neil begins to manifest darker behavior and ultimately crosses over to the opposite reality, where he’s killed. So that’s the plot.

There’re two major problems with the film, and some more minor ones. First major problem is the script, which focuses so tightly on telling the story that it flattens out the characters. Every line that doesn’t have to do with furthering the plot sounds generic and cliché. For that matter, some lines integral to the plot also sound generic and cliché, especially in the lead up to the climax. The script has little conception of who these people really are in their world outside of the events depicted, in both this reality and the opposite one. There are two exceptions, which work because their characterizations are intimately connected to the plot itself: Machlis, who’s supposed to be reclusive and mysterious, benefits from sparse characterization; and Roy (Daniel Westwood), parallel-Heather’s lover, is brought into relief by his diabolical actions, a key part of the plot. This thinness in characterization leads to wooden acting, as the actors (who beside Magowan and Francesca Sgrò are not so bad) don’t know how to embody their characters beyond immediate reactions to what they’re saying. The acting could also benefit from better direction: Sewell’s and Magowan’s body language, for example, makes it painfully obvious that they have not, in fact, slept together ever in their life. Aside from characterization, the script also screws up two key expository scenes. When Machlis is explaining his backstory, Heather infers that he had previously crossed over from the opposite reality to this one, but the inference is such a leap of logic that I actually had to rewind and watch it again just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. And after Neil receives an explanation from Peter the fraud expert (Alexander Cooper, also producing, and the chief promoter of the film) of how Machlis may be a fraud, he gets predictably angry and goes back to Machlis to find out what it is that, according to Peter, his own subconscious is telling him; but whether he gets angry or not, he still would’ve gone back, so prior to the climax (which involves violence), this point felt very forced. Why not keep the violence and lose the psychic session?

The second major problem is with the editing. The editors probably felt that the pace of the many expository scenes was too slow, and they would’ve been right. But their decision to play footage at accelerated speed doesn’t actually solve the problem; in fact, it exacerbates it by making the actions and gestures feel artificial while the pace is still slow. What they should’ve done is cut about half a second from the beginning and end of each shot in a dialogue scene, and make use of J-cuts (of which currently there are none). The cinematographer, moreover, could’ve made more use of midrange close-ups instead of always going for the headshot; together with J-cuts, it could’ve given the dialogue scenes a more natural flow, thus speeding up the pace.

Minor problems include sound editing and mixing, the lighting of a nighttime scene, and the fight choreography (of the fight sequences, only the woman struggling against Roy is convincing). The sound especially seemed a last-minute fix, as hinted at by the fact that the relevant credits come at the very end, after “The End.” These problems could be solved with a slightly bigger budget, of course, but even so, the film could benefit from more judicious craftsmanship in these areas as well.

But for all that, the film does boast two great cuts, one well-executed sequence, and a hint of depth to its theme. Neil is initially skeptical of Machlis, but after his first session he’s ineluctably drawn back. We hear him knocking on Machlis’s door, and Machlis opens it on a sheepish Neil. Cut to the opposite reality, and after that sequence ends, cut to Neil tossing and turning in bed, unsettled by what he’s seen. In the midst of all the exposition, these two cuts are breaths of fresh air. The well-executed sequence is when, after Neil inadvertently crosses over, he returns to his place to find his kitchen, a site of previous interaction with Heather, lifeless, drab, and radically different, upon which he works himself into a panic, effectively emphasized by the expressionistic cinematography and editing.

Finally, the theme. Although Machlis calls both leads “a good person,” both are attracted to a version of themselves unbeholden to social or societal taboos that has kinky, violent sex and kills people with no repercussions. Peter is wrong about Machlis being a fraud, but he is right that Machlis preys on his clients’ subconscious. Despite the fact that Heather repeatedly voices concerns about coming back for more, Machlis never dissuades her from continuing her sessions. Of course, if you think about it, this makes sense on Machlis’s part because (a) he gets their money, and (b) he had previously crossed over, which means he’s from the opposite reality, which means he’s probably a dark character. Just a bit more development of this theme of longing for the unattainable now rendered accessible by technology and the concomitant problems arising from accessing the unattainable could’ve brought this film, thematically at least, into conversation with two other sci-fi indies, Primer (2004) and Anti Matter (2017). Alas.

Editor’s note: This review was written at the behest of Alexander Cooper (Twitter: @alexcooper81), who provided the reviewer a free, no-ads screening due to geographical constraints. That, and some cross-promotion on Twitter, is the limit of the quid pro quo—as you can imagine after reading the review. You can watch the film free, with ads, here.

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