Cast: Daniel B. Fraser, Eleanor Wyld, Owen Pugh
Director: Darren Paul Fisher
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Frequencies, the third feature from writer-director Darren Paul Fisher, feels like a genuine discovery, the kind of film that uses the trappings of science fiction in order to tell a tale of romance, obsession, and the precarious line between fate and free will. Thematically ambitious, meticulously edited, and featuring a strong focus on mood rather than plot or standard narrative, Frequencies is one of the more intelligent and rewarding lo-fi sci-fi films to come along in a long time, following a similar terrain of movies such as Primer and Moon.
The basic premise here is that humans emit certain frequencies that determine luck, love, and destiny. The higher the frequency, the better the luck, but also lower the ability to elicit human empathy. Low frequency specimens cannot be in the same geographical space as the high frequency ones, which doesn't bode well for Zac (played mostly by Daniel Fraser as an adult) and his romantic obsession with Marie (Eleanor Wyld). The film opens in a prep school, with the young Zac and Marie going through a variety of experiments in order to determine the relationship between high and low frequency individuals. While this might sound trite, Fisher frames these early moments in a slightly off-kilter manner, with the detached Marie faking emotional engagement and Zac desperately trying to get inside her head. The setting seems futuristic, but partially because Fisher is working on a low budget and also because he prides ideas over visual architecture, the film looks like it could be taking place right now. The fact that Zac and Marie can't be near each other for longer than a minute less strange environmental catastrophes occur, causes the lovelorn Zac to pursue a solution far into adulthood. The film switches back and forth in time, mixing up the timeline with imaginative feats of editing, almost like a voyeur peering into the lives of people who's fate may or may not be predetermined.
Just when we think we have a handle on where Fisher is going, expecting perhaps a high-concept love story, he throws a third and fourth character into the mix, flipping the story back in on itself and showing their sides of the tale. Frequencies is a chilly film, more intellectually stimulating than emotionally engaging, but that's firmly by design, and the brilliance of Fisher's direction is that he taps into that universal desire to overcome our limitations and forge new destinies for ourselves. Even when Zac figures out a way to equalize the frequency between him and Marie, her increasing feelings of affection toward him are called into question. Does she love him because she's freely choosing to, or is it simply a technical loophole inside the frequency wavelength? Once Fisher introduces the notion of language as a primary altering factor in controlling frequencies, the film starts to take on the feeling of an insidious fever dream, with the certain combinations of letters or phrases being used for both positive and nefarious purposes. Even as the film tackles various themes; free will, determinism, class warfare, phonetics, nature vs. nurture, fate, it never takes itself too seriously, sprinkling in moments of dark humor to offset the potentially alienating subject matter.
Frequencies is a true surprise in a cinematic wasteland priding special effects over ideas, action sequences over nuance, recycling tired genre tropes over giving us something different. Though Fisher doesn't quite have the filmmaking bravado of someone like Shane Carruth, whose last year's Upstream Color was a breathtaking visual and emotional tour de force, he is more than adept at providing clever ideas to the table and then working them out in intriguing ways. Like Carruth's debut Primer, Frequencies is interested first and foremost with doling out philosophical and metaphysical ideas. The fact that there's a quirky romance at the movie's core is simply a bonus, and Fisher wisely shifts away from that angle in the second half, where things get darker and weirder. Both Fraser and Wyld are solid in the leads, with the latter being especially effective in scenes where she has to fake emotional responses. There's an unforced chemistry that develops between them as Marie's frequency slowly evens out, and the way Fisher ingeniously replays scenes over and over from different angles with slight lighting changes, causes us to view their developing relationship with a certain amount of skepticism. Scenes like the one where Marie spills some wine at a family dinner (an action completely out of her high frequency character), and a late moment where a man calmly plays a Mozart piece on piano, are both puzzling and enthralling. Fisher accomplishes this neat trick throughout; providing head-scratching ideas to ponder with characters that are behaving either within a limited scope of influence or on a predetermined timeline.
Intelligent, gripping, and mixing big sci-fi ideas with a universal relatability, Frequencies is part odd love story, part dissection of how romance actually works, and altogether miraculous that it actually exists in the first place.