Cinema loves an identical twin, or preferably, two. More specifically, cinema — and daytime TV — loves to instill in the 99.7% of the population who are not identical twins, the idea that they are untrustworthy types, prone to switcheroo deceptions and uncanny telepathy. These are not myths that Erin Vassilopoulos cares to dispel with her brooding, arch feature debut; in fact she embraces many such unspoken clichés. But if “Superior” feints a familiar, xeroxed plot, it parries into a strikingly individual little pleasure, a headily heightened investigation into identity, sisterhood and the uselessness of men.
A lot comes down to the casting of actual twins Alessandra and Ani Mesa in the main roles, which not only brings an authentically sororal vibe to their interactions, but also allows Vassilopoulos to maintain her lo-fi, throwback, 16mm aesthetic without any doubling fakery going on. Because style here is very much the main dish and not the dressing, and for once that’s not a criticism: This is a film about appearances and copies and roleplay after all, so it could be argued that how it looks — by turns sticky and slick with tactile ’80s neo-noir trappings — is the most important thing.
A self-consciously bizarre series of cross-cuts sets the scene. A classic blond-in-peril runs, roughed-up and ragged, away from a prowling car on a darkened highway, while elsewhere a brunette housewife with a Holly Hunter bob cracks eggs into a frying pan. The blond is caught and knocked out but when her dangerous-looking, leather-jacketed pursuer gets out to inspect the damage, she comes to just in time to jump into his car and run him over. The brunette is sorting through some boxes at home. She finds a large seashell.
Some time later, the blond, Marian (Alessandra Mesa), turns up on the doorstep of the neat suburban home where the housewife, Vivian (Ani Mesa) lives. Unusually, she’s not home, but her amusingly beta husband Michael (Jake Hoffmann) is, and when Vivian gets back from the grocery store, he warns her that her sister, evidently a stranger to him, has arrived. The straitlaced Vivian is surprised (so much for twinly intuition), as they’ve been estranged for years. But she agrees to let Marian stay a while, although Marian keeps her in the dark about what she’s running from.
It’s another twin-movie cliché that the two start out as diametric opposites, very much reflected in Allison Pearce’s none-more-’80s costumes that, in a single floofy blouse or a backless bodysuit, speak volumes about the characters’ respective, gradually entwining states of mind. Sexy, chain-smoking rock chick Marian is fleeing her toxic, bad-boy ex, Robert (Pico Alexander, bringing impressively manic intensity to a one-note malevolent role); Vivian fusses around her garden and her home, with its pale avocado walls, and has strictly prescheduled, hopefully procreative sex with her husband. Michael, for his part, is a hovering nonentity embellished with tacitly scathing details: a classic tobacco tin collection, a book about coins. Even before Marian dyes and cuts her hair and the two try out a little benign place-swapping, it’s clear that each twin could maybe do with rubbing off on the other a little.
From there, after a slightly baggy middle portion, the story darkens, without going to any very unexpected places. But the moody atmospherics remain inventively idiosyncratic throughout, from DP Mia Cioffi Henry’s textured, warm-grained 16mm photography, to Jessica Moss’ excellent, echoey score, enhanced with occasional uncanny nonverbal vocals, and on through to the woozy, bluesy rhythms of the editing, handled by Jenn Ruff and Vassilopoulos herself. It all combines somehow, despite the 1980s setting, into filmmaking that most recalls that of the early ’90s, when off-kilter indie noirs had a moment: “Superior” feels like a John Dahl movie given a “Twin Peaks” vibe on a Hal Hartley budget, with just the odd dash of Old Hollywood thrown in for good measure, like the deliberately “Rear Window”-aping, flashbulb-popping finale.
It might all get too pastiche-y, except that Vassilopoulos is quietly confident in the artificiality of her approach and leans into it, with mordant poker-faced wit and defiant stylishness that give us ample reason to take the twin trope out for another twisty turn around the block. It’s about blurred lines, collapsing identities and merging subjectivities, but the sly, slick little “Superior” knows just who it is.