If Hollywood were a character in one of its own movies, it would be the wild-eyed doomsayer wearing a sandwich board that reads, “THE END IS NIGH!” How else to interpret the astonishing number of dark, post-apocalyptic stories being told these days? By contrast, upbeat indie filmmaker Ela Thier actually does appear in her own movies, and she has a far more positive take on where things are headed. As a stranded time-traveler in “Tomorrow Ever After,” Thier plays a woman who comes from a much better place — namely, the year 2592 — and she uses the high-concept, low-budget feature to suggest a far more optimistic fate for the human race.
Just as the recent election divided voters into two camps — those determined to make Americn great again, and those who object to the idea that it isn’t great already — it’s all a matter of perspective, really. “The Handmaid’s Tale” may be a great dystopian social critique, but it leaves plenty of room for alternatives to the bleak “Blade Runner”-esque future Hollywood so often sells us, which is where Thier’s sensibility offers such a welcome break: Why shouldn’t we hope for an altogether different outcome, one where people have abolished national boundaries, done away with money, share food and resources, and greet complete strangers with open arms?
Conveniently enough (considering the limited resources at her disposal), Thier can convey all this from the present, simply by casting herself as a fish-out-of-water woman named Shaina, who was accidentally beamed nearly 600 years back into the past. Stranded on the streets of Manhattan with only her clothes and her “implement” (a small super-adaptive device the size of a business card), Shaina is understandably oblivious to contemporary customs, making for a series of humorous encounters in which she behaves in completely inappropriate ways. For starters, Shaina instantly hugs everyone she meets, invading the personal space of notoriously prickly New Yorkers.
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The last time we encountered a woman claiming to come from the future — in Zal Batmanglij’s shoestring-ingenious “Sound of My Voice” — the movie toyed with the skepticism any normal person might have when meeting a character like Shaina. Plenty of people simply assume she’s crazy (when Shaina confronts a woman she believes to be one of her distant ancestors, the lady calls security and has her thrown in Bellevue hospital), but the movie itself never once questions the legitimacy of her claim, and Thier plays her part with total guilelessness.
At first, Shaina is frustrated that no one seems willing to help her. In the future — which sounds like a cross between a socialist system and a hippie commune by her description — people have all but abolished fear and loneliness. No wonder future historians refer to our current as “the Great Despair,” Shaina realizes, writing diary entries that invite audiences to see our modern-day world through fresh eyes.
Though hardly an expert in the past, Shaina explains that she studied history, although some of her assumptions seem unusually naïve, despite the excuse that all digital records were wiped centuries before her birth. When a man named Milton (Nabil Viñas) tries to mug her at gunpoint, Shaina fails to recognize the threat, using her implement to retrieve free “moneys” from an ATM. Then, when he runs off, she tackles him and offers to give him more “moneys” if he can help her find physicists who might be able to help her get home.
It’s amusing to think that Shaina’s manner is so disarming it could tame a criminal, although Milton is hardly a career mugger, and his friends — from girlfriend Imani (Ebbe Bassey) to paranoid friend Antonio (memo) — don’t seem capable even to return a lost kitten to its owner. The movie’s one recurring joke stems from watching Shaina catch strangers off-guard, and it starts to wear thin by around the one-hour mark, when things start to turn dark.
When she isn’t directing, Thier teaches filmmaking at the Independent Film School, and her collaborators mostly seem to hail from that environment, making for the big-screen equivalent of a far-off-off-Broadway production. Then again, just as future-centric sci-fi movies tend to be more pessimistic than is called for, critics can be a skeptical lot as well, and though the overall level of technique on display is pretty low, who’s to say she won’t improve as the story evolves? The ending doesn’t make much sense, but Thier has teased the possibility that this could be the first in a trilogy — or even an eight-film series.