Those who complain that U.S. indie features have lost their edge and become too slick and conventional, serving merely as a stepping stone toward studio work, should welcome Polish-born, New York-based Przemyslaw Shemie Reut’s challenging experimental drama “Paradox Lake.” A verite-style journey inside the complex world of autism, told through the experience of a counselor at a summer camp in upstate New York, the initially exasperating film requires considerable patience, but yields strong rewards as it comes together and builds to an unexpectedly unsettling final act. Commercial prospects are minimal for this tough, demanding work, but new-director showcases and forums for cutting-edge cinema should provide exposure.
Skeletal story follows young New Yorker Matt (Matt Wolf), suffering from fatigue and undiagnosed medical problems, who goes against his mother’s instructions to rest and instead volunteers to work through summer at a camp for autistic children. Placed in charge of two boys, he clashes with a fellow counselor (Ernie Jurez) whose harsh methods with the developmentally disabled kids in his care and aggressive behavior with Matt cause animosity.
After a brief, ill-defined romantic involvement with another counselor, Rachel (Phe Caplan), Matt becomes fascinated with her charge, Jessica (Jessica Fuchs). Immersed in her own mystifying games with animal figures, cartoons and fairy tales, the girl proves too complicated and cordoned-off for Rachel to handle, and Matt assumes responsibility for her. Gradually, communicating without speech, he penetrates Jessica’s arcane universe and gains her trust, thwarting tragedy as he unlocks certain secrets in her fairy tale rituals that lead indirectly to the identification of his own illness.
The few concrete narrative elements that punctuate the film — Rachel and Matt’s brief relationship; her suspicion and jealousy over Matt’s breakthrough with Jessica; the girl’s disappearance and the subsequent search; her function as an angel who saves Matt — are given almost throwaway treatment. This makes the drama a frustrating experience until well into the action when, almost imperceptibly, everything starts to gel.
What most interests the director is clearly not the dynamic between counselors and patients, but the notion of placing the viewer in an alternate universe where normal thought processes and communication methods no longer apply. Reut — who co-wrote, edited and shot the film as well as directed — achieves this head-trip by using his restless camera to get inside the minds of the autistic kids in the same way Matt accesses Jessica’s peculiar brand of logic.
The film was shot mainly on Super 16, but limited use also is made of regular 16mm, 35mm, Super 8, digital and standard video and even endoscopic medical video during brain surgery. The cameras crowd in close to their subjects in an intimately probing, documentary style that becomes progressively more hypnotic. This aspect is enhanced by Maciej Staniecki’s quiet electronic ambient music and by the use over the closing scenes of a haunting, weirdly distorted rendition of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” sung by one of the autistic kids.
Actors Wolf and Caplan went through counselor training at the camp to participate in the partly improvised project. Other key characters, including doctors, counselors and autistic children, play themselves, all of them remarkably unselfconscious in front of the camera. The late actor-playwright Jason Miller (“The Exorcist”) makes his final screen appearance in a small role as the camp director.