Every film festival has the potential to introduce you to your next favorite film. Though Fantasia International Film Festival is not quite done yet, nor is it possible to have seen every film programmed, Minor Premise is certainly in the running for that precious top spot.
Neuroscientist Ethan (Sathya Sridharan) is on the brink of a major scientific breakthrough. Hot on the heels of his late father’s research, he is close to mapping protein folds in neural networks to the finest degree that will all us not to only document memories as they are recalled, like a replay button, but that we also may be able to influence the brain in such ways to alter or edit memories themselves. This crazy helmet doodad named the RX9 is the contraption Ethan and his father perfected to do just that, but in the time since his father’s passing Ethan has nearly finished the RX10. Everything starts going off course, however, when a package addressed to Ethan containing his father’s notebook mysteriously appears at his doorstep.
Mind you, not everything was going perfectly for Ethan before that. In addition to the loss of his father and the tension between him and colleague Malcom (Twin Peaks’s Dana Ashbrook), Ethan has been suffering from random blackouts and nosebleeds. Academics do not have a strong track record of self-care, but this dysfunction is way beyond that.
To little surprise, Ethan’s father’s notebook contains the undiscovered equation to complete the RX10 and Ethan promptly gets to work on the next iteration of his experiments. This is where Minor Premise gets good. Real good.
When Ethan fails to attend a grand funding meeting with Malcom, he sends colleague Alli (Paton Ashbrook) to go check on him. They have a history together, and there is some lingering protectiveness she feels for Ethan that goes beyond their shared research interests. When she arrives Ethan looks like hell and is finally piecing together what is happening to him.
Without spoiling too much (which would be easy to do with a twisty-turny plot like Minor Premise), it makes sense to allow me some degree of vaguery here. Ethan’s conscious is fractured into ten separate segments, and he and Alli have to figure out how to rejoin them before it is too late.
What follows is a race against the clock to save Ethan with only limited access to the few practical and constructive segments. The rest of the versions of himself are either too unfocused, or frankly evil. This leads to deception, trust issues, setbacks, and poignant moments that all get in the way of saving Ethan.
Minor Premise uses much more sophisticated technical jargon than I can attempt in a way to convince us that Ethan really knows his stuff. This is never done to alienate or put on airs, but rather it is to sink us into his world of neuroscience and experimentation. And rather than include a civilian character who needs these plain-speak explanations, we have Ethan himself as a fractured person needing to get caught up on the situation by Alli. There is always something so refreshing when a film does not treat the audience like a slobbering idiot, isn’t there?
The best science fiction is not always about what it is about. True, sometimes an alien is just an alien or a cyborg is just a cyborg, but one of the most powerful tools that genre can wield better than most others is the power of allegory. Alien is about aliens, but at its core it is really asking what makes us human. And we all know that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about the Red Scare, but it is also about asking what makes one person different from the other. Minor Premise– an unabashed science fiction allegory- asks its own question of what comprises the “self”? Beyond the physical presentation of a person, what ingredients make them who they are, and what would happen if all those segments broke apart. What if your memories became separate from their associated emotions? Who would you be then?
As we see Ethan sway wildly between his different segments of self, not only do Sridharan and Paton Ashbrook adjust their performances seamlessly, the style of filmmaking adjusts itself as well. When euphoric Ethan sits outside with Alli telling takes from the good old days, while we peer onto them from afar, as to not interrupt their intimacy. There is even a cathartic dance scene this facet of Ethan gets to explode into in his moments of joy. The primal segment of Ethan is often seen through black and white security footage as if he were a prisoner or a haunted house. Minor Premise never feels anything but cohesive, and these modes dip the film’s toes into taking us on this emotional journey with Ethan, rather than just telling us about it.
Much like The Infinite Man and The Quiet Earth, Minor Premise shows that rock solid speculative cinema does not need more than excellent performances and a single location. They simply must dare to dream and ask the big questions. Minor Premise looks inward for its answers, and asks you to do the same too.