A smartly conceived, tautly executed psychological thriller likely to provoke discussions well after its final credits fade, “Exam” was a breakout hit at the Santa Barbara Film Fest, where it took the Independent Feature award. British item has already been picked up for Stateside distribution by IFC, which would be well advised to consider the pic’s strong showing with audiences in mapping out a release plan: At Santa Barbara, “Exam” gathered momentum relatively late into its festival life, making its U.S. premiere to packed screenings and such positive word of mouth that fest programmers skedded additional showings at larger venues.
“Exam” is reality show meets Rubik’s Cube, in which an amped-up episode of “The Apprentice” is grafted onto a seemingly insoluble riddle. Confined to a single room, eight contestants vie for one spot described as the job of a lifetime. The hiring decision, they are warned, will rest solely on how they answer a single question on the sheets before them. The problem, however, is that the papers appear completely blank. That helmer-scribe Stuart Hazeldine (up for a first-feature BAFTA) should have wrung so much tension from such a simple premise is commendable; that he has also managed to make a topical, intelligent film, even more so. And because the audience’s challenge is the same as that of the characters, viewers, once having deciphered the riddle, may well want a repeat viewing.
In its opening frames, “Exam” exudes the polished, self-conscious sheen of a car commercial as the unnamed applicants are shown anxiously prepping for their job exam. That vaguely off-putting style fortunately gives way to a less affected one. Arriving at the exam room, the four men and four women are lectured briefly by a man calling himself “the Invigilator” (Colm Salmon): They will have 80 minutes to answer one question. Should contestants attempt communication with either himself or the security guard or tarnish their paper in any way, they will be eliminated.
With great economy, Hazeldine establishes that these eight are the best and the brightest in their fields. They also represent a variety of ethnic groups, a fact that comes into play when one of the contestants (Luke Mably) suggests they work together in order to decipher the question. In order to preserve their anonymity, he devises a set of shorthand monikers: Henceforth he’ll be simply “White”; the Indian (Jimi Mistry), “Brown”; the other men are “Black” (Chuk Iwuji) and “Deaf” (John Lloyd Fillingham). Among the women, the unlucky “Chinese” (Gemma Chan) is the first to be eliminated. Remaining are “Brunette” (Pollyanna McIntosh), “Blonde” (Nathalie Cox) and “Dark” (Adar Beck).
Little by little, the characters reveal bits of information about themselves: how they were chosen to apply, their respective qualifications and so forth. Because the company in question apparently has the only patented antiviral drug effective in fighting an unnamed global pandemic (a plot point that may strike a chord with H1N1-weary filmgoers), some applicants have very personal reasons for wanting the job.
As discussions ensue, the contestants are also racing against the clock to decipher the question. Maybe, White surmises, this is all an existential mind game, a psycho-social experiment to see how they will handle their challenge. One by one, they are eliminated, but Hazeldine’s clever script keeps us guessing to the very end about the nature of the question, its ultimate resolution and the identity of some key players.
It’s rare to find a first feature that feels and looks so accomplished, but Hazeldine is clearly in control of his craft. Moreover, with judicious cutting, camera movements and variations in lighting, he takes what could have been a rather staid and theatrical concept and renders it entirely cinematic (though one could also imagine “Exam” as a gripping stage piece). More than that, though, he takes what could have been simply a gimmicky one-note riddle and manages to keep us hooked throughout.