'Lyle': Outfest Review

Gaby Hoffmann's ferocious unraveling is the main attraction in this well-done but slight new-millennium riff on 'Rosemary's Baby.'

A Brooklyn-set psychological thriller stars Gaby Hoffmann as a pregnant lesbian housewife.

The perennial question driving psychological horror stories — is it paranoia, or is there really something evil afoot? — gets a sharp and moody if not entirely satisfying workout in Lyle, a concise update of Rosemary's Baby. With a gripping performance by Gaby Hoffmann as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the first feature by its writer-director is a winningly unsettling genre exercise whose style and polish belie the constraints of its microbudgeted five-day shoot. But the hourlong feature, which received its world premiere at Outfest in Los Angeles, would have required more fleshing out to give its jolts and shudders the impact of a horror classic.

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As in the Ira Levin novel brought so memorably to the screen by Roman Polanski, New York real estate and careerism are key elements of Lyle. Replacing the Manhattan landmark of Rosemary's Baby is the Brooklyn brownstone apartment where Leah (Hoffmann), several months pregnant, moves with her record-producer wife, June (Ingrid Jungermann), and their toddler daughter, Lyle (Eleanor Hopkins), as the story opens. Although the strains in Leah's relationship with June, who's oddly disappointed to learn that their second child will not be a boy, are too evident from the get-go, one of the smartest and most contemporary aspects of the film is its matter-of-fact presentation of the same-sex marriage; lesbianism is an element of the story but not its subject.

Breadwinner June works long hours away from home, focused on Threes (Michael Che, a recent addition to The Daily Show), the recording artist whom she believes will top the charts and make her in-demand and wealthy. Leah, like many a stay-at-home mothers before her, putters around their spacious new digs, unpacking not just their possessions but, bit by bit, the unease that's eating at her. The horror unfolds with flashes of humor and, most of all, a compelling and ambiguous indirectness — particularly in a devastating turning point for the family that plays out, unseen, during a Skype session between Leah and Threes.

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Leah's ensuing grief, guilt and mounting suspicions are involving thanks to a typically fearless portrayal by Hoffmann (Girls, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus). Whether they're wordless revelations or explosions of thrashing hysteria, Leah's responses resound in that charged territory where emotional instability is probably a sign of sanity.

With the exception of the wacko building manager, Karen (a very good Rebecca Street), a middle-aged woman who's pathologically obsessed with pregnancy, all the people in Leah's life are strangely impassive. The professional dispassion of her psychotherapist (Ashlie Atkinson) is one thing, but the chill factor of the model who lives upstairs (Kim Allen) is nothing if not disturbing. Left to her own fears and the wonders of the Internet, Leah begins to believe that the building itself is central to her troubles and a place where she can't be safe. Late in the mystery proceedings, a pile of photos seems to confirm her dread. It's way too handy of a narrative device but spooky nonetheless, the character's sudden grasp of dark doings especially well captured by Grant Greenberg's intimate camerawork.

However, Thorndike's compressed storytelling shortchanges the material because it doesn't allow the director and her cast to fully tease out the increasingly distraught Leah's various relationships and interactions. As a result, the final section of the movie, and especially its rushed and perfunctory closing sequence, aren't half as satisfying as they should be. Originally conceived for the web, Lyle is the first of three psychological thrillers centering on female characters that Thorndike plans. (One, she promises, will involve a haunted TED Talk.) Even if it doesn't deliver fully on its promise, it's an accomplished debut.

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With strong contributions from composer Jason Falkner, sound designer David Forshee and production designer Amy Williams, the director has created a world that's both recognizable and eerily off-center. Key to that sense of subjective realism is the way that Greenberg's lens mixes things up rather than settling on a unifying cinematic tone; dazzling morning light conveys at least as much terror as a locked door in heavy shadow.

Cast: Gaby Hoffmann, Ingrid Jungermann, Rebecca Street, Kim Allen, Michael Che, Ashlie Atkinson, Eleanor Hopkins
Director: Stewart Thorndike
Screenwriter: Stewart Thorndike
Producer: Alex Scharfman
Executive producers: Pierce Varous, Chris Kenny
Director of photography: Grant Greenberg
Production designer: Amy Williams
Editors: Jenn Ruff, Sen-I Yu
Composer: Jason Falkner
Sound designer: David Forshee

No rating, 62 minutes