In a moment of vulnerability — to put it mildly — a young woman has a sexual encounter with a ghost and contracts an STD that can’t be Googled in “Lace Crater,” a deeply strange and intermittently creepy micro-indie that’s as inscrutable as its title. Threading a “Repulsion”-like portrait of female trauma and alienation through the sort of ambling relationship study associated with his producer, Joe Swanberg, first-time director Harrison Atkins never quite finds his own distinct voice. He dabbles in horror and deadpan comedy, experiments in discordant jags on the soundtrack, and suggests a more fluid boundary between the living and the dead, but the film remains stubbornly hazy and obscure in its intentions. Atkins’ audaciousness marks him as a filmmaker to watch, but few can be expected to pick up this calling card.
On a getaway to the Hamptons with friends, Ruth (Lindsay Burdge) numbs the ache of a recent breakup by partying a little and perhaps hooking up with Andrew (Andrew Ryder), their host, who’s also on the outs with his girlfriend. As she stumbles drunkenly into the coach house to sleep, a poltergeist swathed in burlap emerges from the darkness. She drops her drink to the floor. He introduces himself as “Michael” (Peter Vack) and asks if she needs a paper towel. A conversation ensues, and Michael proves to be a good listener, which is what Ruth needs in such a vulnerable time. One thing leads to another. Ruth has unprotected ghost sex.
Atkins stages the scene brilliantly, positioning “Lace Crater” as both an absurdist comedy and an unnervingly intimate ghost story, without one taking away from the other. Ruth and Michael share an intense loneliness that makes emotional sense out of their one-night stand, accounting for why she treats him with more curiosity than fear. She accepts Michael’s explanation that they’re both part of the “endless cycle that perpetuates itself” and their emotional neediness wins the day.
In the days and weeks after their encounter ends, Ruth starts to feel sicker and sicker, with symptoms that defy any medical reasoning. She experiences hallucinations, coughs up a black sludge, and watches her complexion turn a pallid cadaver gray. Her relationship with her closest friend, Claudette (Jennifer Kim), breaks down as Claudette takes an interest in Andrew, and renewed talks with her ex-boyfriend (Swanberg) only intensify her anguish. She’s either dying or evolving, and she has to do it alone.
The setup of “Lace Crater” — the friends gathering at a vacation home, the improvised chatter, the homemade no-frills boogeyman — recalls the Duplass brothers’ “Baghead,” but Atkins, to his credit and detriment, doesn’t seem interested in the banalities coming out of his characters’ mouths. Conversations fade in and out and occasionally merge in an Altmanesque jumble, but nearly every line spoken is a stultifying bore. There’s evidence that this may be by design, given Atkins’ interest in Ruth’s subjective experience, but the film cannot entirely free itself from listlessness.
“Lace Crater” succeeds more around the edges of the narrative, where Atkins frees himself to tinker around a little. Atkins gets credits for editing the film and for post-production sound (with Nathan Ruyle), and those contributions, along with the sci-fi plunking of Alan Palomo’s score, are more effective at suggesting Ruth’s state of mind than the action itself. Large chunks of this 81-minute trifle amount to mere banality, including a sex metaphor that’s anyone’s guess, but Atkins scribbles productively in the margins.