Rosalie Lowe in Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan’s “For the Plasma.” | CHRISTOPHER MESSINA/ COCHIN WOOD
For far too long, the uncanny has been missing from American independent cinema. It has a long and venerable tradition in our literature, from Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft to Thomas Ligotti and lesbian transgender author Caitlin Kiernan. But while indie horror films continue to be made, something as weird and uncategorizable as Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan’s “For the Plasma” is a UFO in the American film scene.
For one thing, it’s far more upbeat than most of the films I could compare it to. A story of two women who work together over the course of a summer under increasingly weird circumstances, it doesn’t end with everlasting love and friendship, but nor does it culminate in terror.
Helen (Rosalie Lowe) arrives in a remote town in Maine for a new job. Charlie (Annabelle LeMieux) is already there. Theoretically, their position involves monitoring CCTV cameras in a nearby forest for signs of fire. But Charlie has developed a new obsession: she thinks she can detect future movements in the stock market from patterns in the cameras’ images. She’s hooked up with brokers in New York and receives checks daily based on her predictions. Charlie sends Helen out into the woods to get more detailed information about the forest. One night during a blackout, the women meet their neighbor, a lighthouse keeper (Tom Lloyd).
Rosalie Lowe, Annabelle LeMieux search for magic in Maine woods
Bryant and Molzan shot on 16mm film, although “For the Plasma” is being distributed and projected digitally. The use of celluloid enabled them to capture a rich color palette. Early on, Charlie analyzes a photo in detail for Helen, pointing out its shadowy areas and the way a tree seems to bow toward the light. The film’s use of color, particularly green, enables such a close reading. The scenes in the forest are lovely in a way that’s slightly ominous.
The presence of CCTV cameras is necessary for Charlie and Helen’s work but still feels out of place and creepy, something Helen seems to agree with. Charlie, in contrast, has become immune to their presence and thinks it’s perfectly natural to put security cameras in the middle of the woods. By the time Helen’s GPS starts malfunctioning and she finds swamps where paths are supposed to be, I felt spooky overtones of “The Blair Witch Project” and Kiernan’s novel “The Red Tree.”
Charlie finds a way of monetizing nature without destroying it. But is she deluded or has she stumbled onto a new form of magic in the trees? The film seems to side with the latter explanation, but it keeps its options open. Toward the end, two Japanese businessmen approach her with a very open-ended project: studying satellite photos for a purpose they won’t explain. “For the Plasma” riffs on the American fondness for conspiracy theories without suggesting that Charlie’s full of crap.
LeMieux and Lowe’s performances seem amateurish at first. They’re obviously outsiders to this small Maine town, and while they might not feel out of place in a Joe Swanberg film, they seem glaringly strange in “For the Plasma.” Not until Lloyd enters the film do they fall into context. While I don’t know for sure, I’m guessing that Lloyd is an authentic Maine local, complete with a thick accent and small-town friendliness. Charlie and Helen are far more guarded, although not exactly hostile to strangers. Part of the film’s weirdness stems from its collision of these two worlds — Lloyd seems grounded firmly in reality, while the women have one foot in a collective fantasy.
If there’s a tradition into which “For the Plasma” falls, it’s a small canon of films about female identity transference: Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” Robert Altman’s “3 Women.” (Sophia Takal’s forthcoming “Always Shine” is one of the few examples directed by a woman, and Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s “Performance,” obviously inspired by “Persona,” is the male equivalent of such work.) Helen is sent into the field to do Charlie’s grunt work, essentially. Before she arrived, Charlie seemed to rely entirely on her CCTV cameras. While the two women are often separated, they spend a lot of time together, as well, and start to develop a resemblance. Helen’s mild dissatisfaction with the project rubs off on Charlie.
“For the Plasma” may frustrate some people by erring too much on the side of the enigmatic, especially in its final half hour, but it offers up a compelling optimist’s vision of the forest of life, before which we’re all searching for answers.
FOR THE PLASMA | Directed by Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan | Factor 25 | Opens Jul. 21 | Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave. at Second St. | anthologyfilmarchives.org