The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival featured plenty of films dealing with death, family, and memory. Whether it be the painfully authentic portrayal of imperfect love in “Maudie” or the Fight Club-esque struggle of Buster in “Buster’s Mal Heart,” the festival took every opportunity, none of the films I managed to see, none dealt with these themes as uniquely as the science fiction family drama, “Marjorie Prime.”
Written and directed by Michael Almereyda (and adapted from the play of the same name by Jordan Harrison), “Marjorie Prime” takes place in the near future, following a family in various stages of mourning after the loss of their patriarch. Their therapy comes in the form of artificial intelligent holograms known as “Primes,” emulating their loved ones. The AI rely on their owners to provide them with information and anecdotes about their passed love ones in order to better emulate their personalities.
The initial AI, Walter (Jon Hamm) emulates the late husband of the titular Marjorie (Lois Smith), who is battling a degenerative brain disease. The interplay between a learning AI and a woman with a degenerative brain disease proves to be a fascinating and engrossing dynamic to follow, with threads of conversation never quite being complete, as Marjorie’s selective memory proves a difficult challenge for the ever-patient AI.
The passing of time in “Marjorie Prime” is appropriately fractured and incoherent. Months and even years pass by between Marjorie’s conversations with the AI at a dream-like pace. It is a testament to Almereyda’s ability as a writer that these conversations never prove frustrating to the viewer, despite their meandering and inconclusive nature. Hamm treads through the uncanny valley effectively. We are introduced to Walter Prime and Marjorie’s relationship months into it. Hamm plays Walter Prime with a charming stoicism; the AI is clearly good enough at his job to maintain Marjorie’s suspension of disbelief, but not good enough to fill the cracks in her memory.
Stemming from Harrison’s own experience with Alzheimer’s in his family, Smith’s portrayal of Marjorie is achingly authentic. Her moments of clarity fill her character with color, and reveal how much of a shadow of her former self she has grown to become. The legendary Smith, who made her feature-film debut alongside James Dean in 1955’s “East of Eden,” had practice, having originally played Marjorie on stage. Almareyda revealed in the post-screening Q&A that spending a day with Smith and then watching her perform the play that night inspired him to adapt the film.
Jon (Tim Robbins) is the only member of the family that seems to trust the product and its therapeutic applications, while his wife Tess (Geena Davis) and others see it as a harmful form of self-deception. Conscious of the fact that Marjorie’s testimony may not provide reliable enough data for the AI, he provides it with his own memories of his father-in-law, in what proves to be the most gripping scene in the film.
The eternally unfinished business left behind by a late loved is painfully put on display, as the Jon gets his own sort of therapy from the AI. He recounts memories of Walter’s past shortcomings as a father over a glass of whiskey, the consequences of which are still felt by his survivors. He forbids the Walter Prime from sharing said memories with Marjorie, and plants a subtle seed in the narrative which culminates into perhaps the most memorable closing scene of the entire festival.
Scored by the Academy Award-nominated Mic Levi (as well as utilizing orchestral tracks originally composed by members of The National and Arcade Fire) “Marjorie Prime” sounds simultaneously hopeful and haunting. Fraught with frantic, fast-paced strings, the viewer is kept on edge between awe and discomfort. Upon hearing it, the audience is unsure of whether something terrible or beautiful has just taken place, all too appropriate considering the “therapy” taking place on-screen.
Photo Credits: Passage Pictures