An experimental video feature with unusual narrative heft, Julie Talen’s “Pretend” uses elaborate split-screen devices to poke around the ambiguities and emotions surrounding a child’s disappearance in upstate N.Y. Too idiosyncratic for commercial exposure, pic nonetheless reps a notable directorial debut of interest to fest and avant-garde programmers. (Talen has hitherto worked as a scenarist, including on proposed Robert Altman project “Mata Hari.”)
Basic girl-who-cried-wolf story is simple: Afraid their unemployed father (Karl Herlinger) is about to leave after too many arguments with fed-up mom (Joan Jubett), 9-year-old Sophie (Nora Stewart) hatches a plan sure to make him stay –leaving reluctant younger sis Ellie (Danielle Freid) deep in the forest overnight, then telling parents the tot was abducted by a stranger. Of course this provokes hysteria, in part because a little boy really was abducted in the area recently. Situation reels further out of control the next day, when Sophie finds Ellie is no longer at her hiding place — her fate unknown even up through a surprise coda that shows now-adult Sophie (Marin Gazzinaga) still wracked by guilt.
As many as 50 multichannel images (shot by up to nine simultaneous cameras) are on screen at once, repping not just different p.o.v.’s but also flashbacks, flash-forwards, imaginary scenarios, dreams, etc. For once, such technical gimmickry really does evoke by sheer accumulation the ultimate instability of subjective truth, lending pic a resonant dimensionality.
There’s an occasional overemphasis on high-pitch histrionics among the actors, but imagination deployed in visual (and equally arresting audio) designs provides enough intellectual distance from the melodrama. Microbudgeted feature’s nonstandard tech aspects are in tune with offbeat overall package.