Low budget indie films often get overlooked, no matter the star power attached to the project. Such is the story of Marjorie Prime. This film had been on my radar for a while (thanks to Alex at makingacinephile.com) but I nearly missed it in theaters because of its incredibly limited release and almost complete absence of advertising. As a science fiction offering, I expected some kind of thriller as Sci-Fi films typically tend to be…at least on some level. However, in this instance, it’s a heavy intellectual drama with a good sense of humor. The nature of this film makes it very difficult to describe, but if I had to choose a central theme it would be: memory.
The story is set in the not too distant future and introduces Marjorie (Lois Smith) near the end of her life. As her condition deteriorated, Marjorie’s adult daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins) moved in to help. Eventually they decided to utilize a holographic artificial intelligence designed to assimilate the memory of a deceased loved one and essentially replace that missing relationship for the user. In Marjorie’s case, it’s her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm). The AI must then learn about itself through Marjorie and her family’s recollections, creating a kind of faulty positive feedback loop, conjuring its identity from the flawed and often reflective perceptions of the people around it. As time goes on, the characters learn to engage the AI to suit their own needs, including utilizing AI avatars of their own down the line.
There is a lot on the table emotionally for all of the characters. For Marjorie, she is desperately clinging to a life slowly slipping through her fingers like the sands of an hour glass. The manifestation of her husband brings her some cursory pleasures but ultimately fails to fill the void in her spirit. Tess views her mother’s bond with Walter’s digital ghost as a perceived slight and must come to terms with deficiencies in their own relationship as child and parent. Jon had always been on the outside looking in on Tess and her parents’ relationships but, as an active participant in the AI experience, he carries the burden of answering some tough questions and plays a central role in shaping the AI into the most accurate version of Walter which he can remember. On the surface, it seems like a cautionary tale about the role AI can and might play in our lives in the not too distant future. However, this film is really about a family using technology to deal with loss….or more accurately, to avoid dealing with it.
Although there is a lot going on, the relationship between Tess and Marjorie is really the core of this film. Although Davis hasn’t been in the spotlight lately, this was a wonderful return to form for the Academy Award winning actress and it’s easy to see why she took the part. Her character has a lot of levels, but is wonderfully authentic and easily relatable at the same time. There is a lot on her plate with her mother’s life approaching its final days and she did an excellent job capturing the love, regret and resentment that goes along with that relationship. Opposite Davis, Lois Smith was exceptional and she catapulted the film in the right direction from the beginning. Her sense of humor and vulnerability made her easy to cheer for, which was an important hurdle to jump early on. In playing a person suffering from dementia, Smith executed drastic shifts in mood with expert nuance. It’s one thing to have an outstanding performance with dominant, well written dialogue but it’s another thing entirely to shine in subtlety and both actress were adept at playing both sides of that coin.
The acting performances were very strong across the board. Jon Hamm was a wonderfully soothing monotone as Walter Prime. While the context of his conversations with Marjorie are often very emotional, his mechanical stoicism was a great fit. Being appropriately emotional and convincing is difficult enough on its own, but stripping all that feeling out of a scene may be just as tough and Hamm was masterful in that regard. Tim Robbins wasn’t exactly in the limelight, but his character served an important function as narrator. He was no less complex than the rest and Robbins showed a wealth of range as a loving husband trying to make everything as painless as possible for the people he loves.
Writer/Director Michael Almereyda chose a tough project to adapt. Based on the 2015 Pulitzer Prize nominated play by Jordan Harrison, this felt very much like a stage performance. It’s intimate and captivating, but the pacing is peculiar and the fade to black editing was an odd choice throughout. The dialogue is fantastic…rich with experience, detail and personality. The actors who signed on are a testament to the strength of the writing and wealth of character in the script. With all the simmering emotion between the characters, things never actually boil over into any legitimate conflict which felt like a miss in the authenticity department (except for one brief moment between Jon and Walter). Almereyda should still find himself in consideration for Best Adapted Screenplay, but sadly the film has made only $135-thousand at the box office so far and may not have the financial backing to make a push during awards season.
The production elements are strong despite the obviously small budget, but the minimalist approach cultivated much needed intimacy to tell this story. Most of the film is shot at an exquisitely modern beach house in Long Island, New York which brings a lot of warmth. With a lot of sandy tones and beach views, it’s a stark contrast to the cold and sterile surroundings commonly associated with Sci-Fi films. Sean Price Williams’s cinematography was good at showcasing the architecture and lighting of the beach house and there were some cool shots that utilized background/foreground focus shifts to draw the eye. However, there was only so much to capture and the visual aesthetic walks the line of redundancy by the time the films reaches the end of its hour and thirty-eight minute run time. The film never wanders into boredom thanks in large part to Mica Levi, receiving special thanks on another of Almereyda’s films (Experimenter 2015), who composed a really lovely original score which reflected the brooding emotion and maintained the desperate apprehension at the core of the story. It’s not easy to capture, reciprocate and drive the tone of a film with the score, but Levi did a great job in all aspects.
Marjorie Prime is a pensive journey through love, life and loss. A mesmeric reflection on what it means to be human and the moral, philosophical and spiritual implications that go along with it. There is quite a lot going on thematically throughout the film and but the majority of the film stays relatively grounded and doesn’t get carried away elevating the Sci-Fi story elements. However, when the story reaches its conclusion the questions about artificial intelligence, the role of memory and the meaning of life are left lingering at the surface for the audience to reflect upon as they leave. It’s tough to say whether or not it was a good choice, but it was a noticeable shift away from the raw emotional narrative which drove the film to the finish.
Recommendation: This isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but go see this film if you can. The filmmaking quality is stronger than a lot of films with bigger budgets, but there is a certain intangible fun factor that this movie just doesn’t have. There isn’t a lot like this getting made and I really enjoyed the film, but I can’t help but feel it could have been better with some minor adjustments. For those who have suffered the loss of a loved one or have aging parents, this film should resonate a lot closer to home. It could work as date movie because there are some strong, loving relationships that are at the center of the film, but this isn’t something to take the whole family to.