The second stop in my short trip through 2014's lesser-known genre filmmaking is James Ward Byrkit's Coherence. Which turned out to be fortuitous, as the comparison between Coherence and The One I Love revealed some interesting similarities, as well as telling differences. On the surface level, the two films feel very different--The One I Love is intimate and tightly focused, while Coherence is chaotic and occasionally rambling. Coherence has a more overtly SFnal subject matter, which it expresses through the more obvious tropes of horror filmmaking, such as jump scares and dark shadows, a stark contrast to how The One I Love conceals its horror story under a sunny, comedic tone. And perhaps most importantly, Coherence is a micro-budget production (IMDb claims it was made for $50K, which if accurate is very impressive indeed) next to which even the small-budget, independent The One I Love looks polished and well-funded.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the two films feel like different glosses on very similar stories. Both have a mumblecore aesthetic--Coherence's dialogue was even ad-libbed by the actors to create a greater sense of verisimilitude. Both focus on troubled middle class white couples whose attempts at socializing are interrupted by the supernatural. And both have doubling, and specifically alternate versions of their characters, at the core of their SFnal premise. Of the two films, genre fans might gravitate to Coherence because of its focus on investigating and working out its central McGuffin, but though that element of the film works very well, the marriage between it and the film's character-based elements is less successful than in The One I Love.
Set almost entirely in a single house and on a single evening, Coherence begins with eight friends getting together for a dinner party. The roster includes two established couples: Mike and Lee, the hosts, and their close, older friends Hugh and Beth; a newer couple, Em and Kevin, who are struggling with Em's reluctance to join Kevin on a four-month work assignment; and perennial single guy Amir, whose date, Laurie, is Kevin's ex. The improvised dialogue does a good job of establishing that these people have long histories together, but is a little more awkward at introducing the fact that a comet is passing near Earth that evening, and that strange events were recorded on its previous appearance. Halfway into dinner, the power fails, as do the phones and internet. Venturing outside, the friends see that the entire neighborhood is dark except for one house. When Hugh and Amir walk over to ask if they can use the phone, they return visibly shaken, carrying a box containing pictures of the eight party guests. Deducing that they may have scared the inhabitants of the other house, Hugh decides to leave an apologetic note, but when he opens the front door to leave, he finds an identical note there.
The bulk of the rest of the film is taken up with these strange occurrences--some of the characters decide to make another journey to the other house and meet subtly-different versions of themselves, the ones left behind see and hear strangers outside, and the house is eventually invaded by the characters' doubles. There's a lot of Primer-style fun to be had trying to work out what's happening from a limited perspective and with little information, mapping the trajectories and movements of the characters and their duplicates. And it's particularly rewarding that the person who exhibits the most analytical approach to the situation, and eventually figures out the full contours of her predicament and how to work within them, is Em (Emily Foxler)--though it must be said that the other female characters are less well-drawn, and that Laurie (Lauren Maher) in particular is a caricature of the crazy ex who is gunning for the heroine's man. The solution to the mystery doesn't entirely work--and our understanding of it relies on the fact that Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) just happens to have a physicist brother who just happens to have left with him some notes about Schrodinger's cat and quantum decoherence that just happen to have been written in such a way as to explain what the characters are experiencing--but it hangs together well enough for the duration of the film, and is sold by the characters' frightened reactions and the spooky direction.
But while the SFnal aspect of the film works very well, it doesn't, in itself, earn the film's character beats. It's clear that Byrkit wants to use the existence of parallel versions of the characters to muse about regrets and missed opportunities, and as these alternates begin visiting the house, in some cases trying to get back to their own reality and in others trying to take over this one, the question of which versions of themselves are "good" or "bad" begins to haunt the film's heroes. Em, for example, is a dancer who passed up on an understudy role that eventually led the woman who accepted it to stardom; "that woman is living your life!" Laurie exclaims, but it soon becomes clear that she is also trying to usurp Em's role by seducing Kevin. Aside from Em, the most prominent character in the film is Mike (Nicholas Brendon) an out-of-work actor and alcoholic who is haunted by the possibility that one of the alternate versions of himself might be violent, but who turns out to be sufficiently reckless and destructive in his own right. (In one of the film's funniest and most meta-textual moments, our first hint that we are dealing with alternate realities comes when Mike explains to Laurie that he used to be a regular on a genre series, and then names it as Roswell.) But, just like the coincidence of Hugh having information that relates to the film's strange occurrences, the fact that those occurrences just happen to reflect on the characters' deepest anxieties is unearned, and its obviousness means that the film's climax feels over-determined rather than cathartic. It is never, for example, explained just why the characters keep leaving the house even when it becomes clear that doing so is scary and dangerous (a fact that the film itself seems to recognize when it reveals that the "best," happiest versions of the characters are the ones who ignored the chaos outside the house and stayed in to play party games). They have to do so, because otherwise there would be no story and no way to work out the film's central puzzle, but Byrkit never successfully explains why the characters, as people, made that choice.
I'm terribly sorry to make this pun, but Coherence ends up unable to make something coherent out of its genre and mimetic elements. This is far from a fatal flaw, especially when you consider how rare it is to find films that do what it does well--investigate an otherworldly occurrence in a methodical but also compelling manner. And though Byrkit fudges the process of getting his characters to their crisis point, Em and Mike's desperation once they realize how lost they are, and their choices of how to deal with that situation, are very well done. The One I Love may be a better example of how to marry mimetic character drama with genre elements, but Coherence is a bolder work, and earns my admiration for its boldness even if it isn't entirely successful. Both are good films, and both are worth watching as example of what genre filmmaking is capable of.