The common nostalgia for an idealized simpler time in which tight-knit communities satisfied all personal needs can be warped to serve fascist ideologies, a notion that is not at all lost on “1BR.” In this thriller, a needy, insecure young woman thinks she’s lucked out in being accepted to an apartment complex where everyone is very, very neighborly. But she gradually learns this little utopia is in fact more of a prison — one with a brutal assimilation process, and where a sense of belonging comes at the cost of absolute conformity, or else.
Writer-director David Marmor’s first feature doesn’t make much of this concept’s potential as a timely political metaphor, nor does he maximize his opportunities in such other departments as suspense, character involvement and cinematic style. Still, the premise remains intriguing enough to make “1BR” a qualified success, albeit one whose ideas sometimes cry for a more adventuresome and assertive treatment.
Pretty but wallflowerish Sara (Nicole Brydon Bloom) has moved to Los Angeles for no apparent reason beyond getting physical distance from an overprotective father, whom she seems to blame for her mother’s recent cancer death. As she ignores his calls (and takes her Zoloft), she tries to prove she can handle independence. First she gets a temp job at a law firm where brassy coworker Lisa (Celeste Sully) demonstrates how not to get pushed around by the bosses. She then becomes one of many applicants hoping to snag a vacancy in an “affordable luxury apartment” building. Its inhabitants seem diverse in age, race and every other respect, not to mention exceptionally social among themselves.
Her chances appear slim. Yet Sara soon gets the call from building manager Jerry (Taylor Nichols) telling her she got the flat — perhaps because she’d been so ready to aid a frail older resident (Susan Davis as Edie) having a weak spell, and thus seemed a natural for this community of helping neighbors.
It seems a perfect fit for someone hoping to overcome her self-confidence issues, complete with a potential boyfriend in the form of handsome, solicitous Brian (Giles Matthey). Never mind that Sara has already fibbed a bit to get here: There’s a strict no-pets policy, and she’s snuck in her cat Giles. As long as he stays out of sight, who’s going to know?
Well, somebody soon knows, somehow, as a threatening anonymous note reminds her of her lease terms. There’s also the issue that Sara is kept wide awake night after night by jolting noises no one else seems to notice. She’s beginning to wonder if she needs to move when, half an hour into the film, her woes take a drastic turn for the worse.
To detail more would spoil things, but suffice it to say that Sara’s “conditioning” has now entered the crucial phase, and not just continued acceptance but her life itself are at stake. Should she survive the immediate hurdles, she’ll learn that the power of community here encompasses some very peculiar notions about education, marriage, euthanasia and more. It also comes with harsh attitudes toward privacy and perceived selfishness — both of which are forbidden.
Once the narrative takes this abrupt turn, at first “1BR” looks to be headed in the depressing direction of torture-porn horror, as yet another pretty young woman’s sadistic, sometimes grisly cinematic mistreatment is dwelt upon at length. But Marmor, who’s said his script was partly inspired by a personal interest in SoCal self-help and quasi-religious cults, fortunately uses that interlude as a narrative transition rather than a raison d’être. Afterward, we (along with Sara) get a clearer look at just how this enclave aims to “make the world a perfect community” one self-contained bubble at a time, combatting the ails of a “sick modern society” by fully withdrawing from it.
Of course, that’s a logic many tyrants and charlatans have used to achieve power, deploying fear and flattery to keep a majority complacent while directing everyone’s hostilities at real or imagined dissenters. There’s a lot to chew on in the basic ideas here, but they aren’t developed with much finesse.
Whether due to casting or writing, Brydon Bloom doesn’t make much of her heroine beyond pure victimhood. It’s one thing that Sara is passive and shy — the perfect sucker for this trap — but quite another that she comes off as a whiny, unformed personality to the point of being rather uninteresting. The fadeout does make a leap into stronger metaphorical terrain, but if it’s to carry the desired punch, we’d need to have more faith in this protagonist as being able to embody freedoms worth fighting for. Nor are the supporting figures given much more complexity, despite solid performances.
In other ways, too, “1BR” lacks imaginative definition. It has a cold, simple widescreen look whose borderline drabness might have been turned into an atmospheric virtue, underlining the slightly creepy decrepitude of such cheap mid-century California stucco housing.
But instead it just lacks stylistic personality, visually and otherwise. With its aspects of human captivity, brainwashing, collective insanity and ersatz utopianism, Marmor could have taken his story in myriad tonal directions. But instead of a wild ride, his film emerges a competent one that holds the attention, yet also feels like a missed chance at something truly memorable from a promisingly offbeat premise.