Director Eric Schultz wraps hard sci-fi trappings around the framework of a taut thriller in Minor Premise, his debut feature film. The film stars Sathya Sridharan as Ethan Kochar, a talented but troubled young college professor and neuroscientist who helped his father invent a machine that could access, record, and play back memories from within the human brain. The credit, though, went largely to Ethan’s now-deceased father and his collaborators, leaving Ethan a drunken, bitter mess who experiments on himself in his own basement as he tries to crack the code to the next big breakthrough: the ability to control and rewrite human consciousness and emotional response. He finally succeeds in accessing his emotional core, but something goes awry, causing his consciousness to split into ten fragments, one his full consciousness and the other nine based around basic human emotions (anxiety, anger, euphoria, etc.). Each piece of Ethan gets the run of his body for six minutes an hour and, unfortunately, those pieces don’t talk to each other. Alli (Paton Ashbrook), Ethan’s former partner (romantically and scientifically), spends 12 minutes an hour coordinating with Ethan’s “default” persona and his core intellect, and the other 48 minutes dodging his other emotions’ baser urges and cleaning up their messes. If Alli and 20% of Ethan can’t find a way to reintegrate his mind within a day, his overworked brain will melt into mush—no pressure.
You have to accept two major premises to enjoy Minor Premise: first, the arbitrary time limits, particularly that Ethan’s mind will neatly reset itself every time any clock in the house reads divisible-by-six-minutes-and-zero-seconds; and second, that Ethan’s university will let him keep a large amount of expensive experimental equipment in his basement so that he and Alli can work in isolation. Buy into that and you’re set for an unnerving journey to the center of the mind. Schultz and his cowriters Justin Moretto and Thomas Torrey use the conceit of Ethan’s fractured brain to reveal the story in bibs and bobs, echoing the feel of Christopher Nolan’s Memento in the way the viewer is kept on their toes as a new bit of information can rewrite anything you’ve seen before. Atmospherically, Shultz feels like he’s pulling not only from Memento but also from M. Night Shyamalan, particularly in the pervasive sense of dread as the tension rises and falls through each cycle through Ethan’s psyche. This unsettling atmosphere is amplified by the lighting scheme, which soaks the above-ground floors of the house in Edison bulb yellow and the basement in the drab green-white glare of fluorescent lights.
Minor Premise succeeds largely on the strength of Sridharan and Ashbrook’s performances, in their ability to sell the premise and in the chemistry they have together. It’s easy to imagine things going pear-shaped really quickly if a mediocre actor were in the Ethan role, hamming up the extremes of each emotion’s behavior. Yet Sridharan (a former St. Louisan!) easily slides from fragment to fragment, making them all distinct yet still clearly pieces of the same nerdy, nervy scientist—which is proper because, as Ethan explains to Alli when she compares his behavior to dissociative identity disorder, “These aren’t personalities; it’s all still me.” It’s intense to watch as his character slowly falls apart, the exhaustion setting in as his jaw slackens, the rings beneath his eyes darken, and the sweat soaks his skin more and more as the day drags on. Ashbrook makes readily apparent the connection Alli has with Ethan and how her understanding of him as a complete person allows her to navigate through the confusion caused by his individual pieces. As a steady emotional influence, a friend who sees through his bullshit, and a sharp scientist who asks the right questions, she’s the rock that keeps erratic Ethan lurching in the right direction.
There’s a procedural thrill in seeing a problem laid out and watching the characters solve it, but the science fiction elements that explore the nature of the human mind make Minor Premise more than just a mystery that needs solving. That it’s told with such flair, and by actors with such skill, is what makes Minor Premise a film worth seeking out. | Jason Green
Minor Premise is screening as part of this year’s Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival and is available to stream from November 5-22, though only in Missouri and Illinois. General admission tickets are $10, or $8 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid ID. To purchase a ticket or watch the trailer, click here.