Ingenuous, low-budget sci-fi is having a moment. It’s been a long time since Primer and Upstream Color, or even Coherence or Timecrimes. But recent festival offerings like The Artifice Girl and Aporia suggest that this peculiar genre niche is still alive and well. They say that three films make a trend, so here, as if on cue, is Brightwood. A small film with big ideas, it’s a two-hander that finds fascinating ways of snaking back and forth onto itself, like an ouroboros of sorts. As the movie begins, 30-something couple Dan (Max Woertendyke) and Jen (Dana Berger) are on their morning jog through the woods near their home. It’s clear that this is a regular routine for the duo, but on this particular morning, she is furious with him. As Jen alternates between outright ignoring Dan and the occasional passive-aggressive quip, it’s revealed that he got exceedingly drunk the night before during a party meant to celebrate Jen’s recent promotion. Dan tries to make jokes to break the tension, all but begging Jen to stop jogging and give him a chance to explain, but it’s obvious that their marriage is nearing its end. She’s fed up, and he’s too dumb to recognize what he’s done to wrong her. Writer-director-cinematographer-editor Dane Elcar stretches these early scenes almost to the breaking point — Jen and Dan come dangerously close to becoming sitcom clichés, her the nagging wife and him the doughy, laid-back everyman. But there’s a method to the madness, so to speak; like the characters themselves, the audience is distracted enough to not even notice when the couple starts running in circles. It’s a slow, dawning realization; the usual trail is suddenly gone, the houses just beyond the tree line aren’t visible, and the “No Swimming” sign posted in front of the pond at the center of the forest keeps reappearing with alarming frequency. It takes a few minutes of wheel-spinning, but the couple discovers that they are indeed stuck in a time loop, with no immediate way out.
What follows is a series of increasingly fraught scenarios as the narrative splinters to track the movements of different versions of Dan and Jen. Sharp viewers will recognize that Elcar has quietly planted visual signifiers during the film’s opening scenes – drag marks in the dirt trail, a path demarcated with small rocks, an increasingly large pile of earbuds that grows larger every time the couple circles the pond. Eventually, Dan and Jen stumble across another figure on the trail; the stranger refuses to turn around and speak to them, but seems to be wearing a ratty, dirtier version of Dan’s hoodie. When Jen is suddenly murdered by a second stranger, Dan runs away, only to inadvertently stumble upon an earlier version of himself and Jen (in the midst of an argument the audience has already seen). Things get more complicated from there, with Elcar displaying a keen sense of just how much information an audience needs to keep track of who is who — or, more precisely, who is when. Brightwood has some fun tossing out random explanations for what might be going on; Dan thinks they are in Hell, while Jen suggests they’ve stumbled across an alien device that is messing with time. The once-bickering couple finds some solace in facing this dilemma together, and while we won’t reveal anything here about the absolutely stunning ending, it’s a kind of sick riff on a “comedy of remarriage.” Brightwood is an awful lot of fun, suitably destined for some measure of cult status — don’t be surprised if you start seeing people online attempting to diagram the film’s various timelines. The result is a crowd-pleasing head-scratcher, and a bold feature film debut for Elcar.
DIRECTOR: Dane Elcar; CAST: Dana Berger, Max Woertendyke; DISTRIBUTOR: Cinephobia Releasing; STREAMING: August 22; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 24 min.