'H.': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
An artfully assembled but indecipherable allegory

Two Helens have a tough few days in Troy, New York

Two Helens of Troy (Troy, New York, that is) dwell on motherhood as the world around them falls apart in H., a shaggy-dog allegory whose artful conception will have viewers looking for deeper meanings that may never be forthcoming. Compelling in many of its small moments but a head scratcher in the end, Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia's film is likely to find some admirers at fests, but, barring connections with a well-placed tastemaker or three, it will be a hard sell beyond that.

Veteran character actress Robin Bartlett plays the elder Helen, a retiree who is so into the phenomenon of "reborn dolls" (incredibly realistic vinyl dolls resembling newborns) that she posts videos online showing, for instance, how to make it look like they're actually drinking milk from a bottle when you wake up at 4:50 a.m. to "feed" them. Her husband, Roy (Julian Gamble), is tolerant of the hobby, which is not to say he's enthusiastic about the fact that she carries this doll to grocery stores and restaurants, pretending it's real. Across town is young Helen (Rebecca Dayan), a performance artist whose creative partner (Will Janowitz) is also the father of the child she is carrying. Frequent fights are evidently part of their artistic "practice," but they're trying to keep things calm with parenthood looming.

Both couples are carrying on with daily life when strange things start happening in Troy. Something like a meteor explodes in the sky; gravity works in reverse now and then; glasses shatter and piercing noises stop men dead in their tracks. Very effective spookiness on the soundtrack accompanies all this, and we soon find that random citizens of Troy are falling into "temporary walking comas," abandoning their cars and wandering into the woods to meet some unknown fate. These events are recounted in numbered chapters, each of which ends with the sight of a large, disembodied statue's head floating down a river.

How is that concrete mass floating? What was the meteor thing? Why is a black horse showing up on the streets? And what does any of this have to do with The Iliad? These are questions the film's eerie production values and strong performances keep us interested in for about 80 minutes, before we start to strongly suspect there is no answer in store. Garcia's chalky, shiver-inducing photography pairs well with the varied sonic elements to set the scene, and the actors commit fully. But even viewed as nothing more than a highbrow creepfest, the film ultimately disappoints.

Production companies: Enpassant, Nice Disolve, Frutacine
Cast: Robin Bartlett, Rebecca Dayan, Will Janowitz, Julian Gamble, Roger Robinson
Directors-Screenwriters-Editors: Rania Attieh, Daniel Garcia
Producers: Pierce Varous, Shruti Ganguly, Ivan Eibuszyc, Matthew Thurm, Rania Attieh, Daniel Garcia
Director of photography: Daniel Garcia
Production designer: Rania Attieh
Costume designer: Romina Prandoni
Music: Kazu Makino, Alex Weston, Daniel Garcia, Jesse Gelaznik
Sales: Andrew Herwitz, Film Sales Corp

No rating, 96 minutes