“Flashback” proves it’s possible to create a Christopher Nolan-esque, fantasy-tinged narrative puzzle of interlocking realities without need of a major-studio budget or elaborate CGI. Whether it says much of anything else may depend on your attitude toward such labyrinths — whether you need them to actually go somewhere, or conversely find that surface complexity provides depth and meaning in itself.
Writer-director Christopher MacBride’s second feature (following paranoid found-footage horror “The Conspiracy” by nearly a decade) stars Dylan O’Brien as a young man haplessly trying to navigate a wormhole of comingled memories and visions perhaps belatedly triggered by teenage drug experimentation. Formerly titled (and still being released in some markets as) “The Education of Fredrick Fitzell,” the movie’s pileup of dislocating side-swipes from any tangible here/now is intriguing and well-crafted to a degree many genre fans will find exciting. But others will be justified in wondering if all this stylish, increasingly frenetic sleight-of-hand obscures scant substance. Lionsgate is releasing the Canadian production to U.S. theaters and VOD on June 4; DVD, Blu-ray and digital follows on the 8th.
Though he once aspired to be an artist, Fred (O’Brien of “Teen Wolf” and the “Maze Runner” films) is now an information analyst at a generic corporate HQ, living with girlfriend Karen (Hannah Gross) in an equally sleek, characterless high-rise apartment complex. His mother (Liisa Repo-Martell) is dying in hospital, her memory gone, and her inability to remember who he is jars something loose in Fred’s brain. He begins experiencing blank-out moments in which he sees (or imagines) figures trying to communicate cryptic messages to him.
These disturbances seem somehow connected to high school experiences 15 years earlier, when a mysterious recreational drug called Mercury was “going around.” He gets back in touch with two classmates, erstwhile dealer Sebastian (Emory Cohen) and fellow tripper Andre (Keir Gilchrist). But they can’t answer his real question: Whatever happened to Cindy (Maika Monroe), a nonconformist who used “merc” for “exploration” rather than escape? Ominously, none of them have any memory of her after a certain night back then, and a former teacher says Cindy “just vanished” before even graduating.
As Fred keeps replaying scenes (going back as far as childhood) in his head, he begins losing control. The past blurs into the present, alarming alternate realities present themselves, and it is suggested that Mercury opened a portal into a plane on which “all points exist simultaneously.” Did Cindy stay on the other side of that door? Can he join her there? Would he want to?
Eventually escalating to strobe-cuts and moderately psychedelic imagery, “Flashback” is a slightly-sci-fi psychological thriller that creates a sense of time-slippage in which there’s nothing secure for Fred to cling to. But as we have no sense what he was like before — he’s already in a mental fog when we first meet him — there isn’t much at stake here, despite O’Brien’s empathetic performance.
For all MacBride’s attention to structural gambits, as well as his able cast’s efforts, the characters here have such so little context or inner life they might just as well be named Protagonist, Mystery Obsession Girl, Sidekicks 1 & 2, Obligatory Girlfriend and Mom. They are pawns in an abstruse game that does have some final emotional payoff, albeit on such an elemental level that it arguably renders gratuitous 90 minutes’ preceding convolution.
Nevertheless, MacBride is always in full control of the modestly scaled feature’s refined aesthetics and storytelling focus, smoothly maintaining viewer interest if not always our full involvement. Brendan Steacy’s atmospheric widescreen cinematography and the spectral melancholy of Anthony Scott Burns aka Pilotpriest’s original score are binding elements in a movie whose ever-more-splintered narrative needs all the glue it can get.