Like youth itself, the opening of Frequencies — an uncommonly ambitious science-fiction romance — is sparkling and unsettling at once. It bubbles with crushes and promise, as smart teens do, but its leads suffer from that certainty felt by the mooniest young people, the ones who haven’t yet figured out how to be around each other. They’re convinced that something within them naturally repulses the people they want to get close to.
Writer-director Darren Paul Fisher literalizes such fears in a crisp and bewitching montage. A girl and a boy, both stirred by each other, meeting for exactly one minute per year as part of their own self-conducted science experiment. These two actually do radiate forces that repulse each other, in the scientific rather than the gag-reflex way: The world quakes if they’re near each other too long. Fisher strings those quick minutes together, one after the other, the characters growing from kids to teens (as the actors are swapped out twice). Always, the boy beams and flirts, and the girl, a genius, tries to focus the talk on the science; she wants to learn what she can about their repulsion before it brings down planes from the sky.
The premise of Fisher’s smart, twisty film (his third feature) is that all people emit a measurable frequency whose pitch reveals their essence. Radiant Marie’s frequency is off-the-charts high, which means she’s brilliant but emotes like an android. She says the kind of things Estella did in Great Expectations, pushing her words into the air like they’re coins she’s sliding into a parking meter: “I experience no joy. If you ever see me smile, laugh, frown, or cry, I’m pretending.”
She is pursued by Zak (mostly played by Daniel Fraser), her essential opposite. On their jacket-and-tie school’s big test day, when the children learn what they emit, he learns he’s a “negative,” someone so low on the scale that he can’t possibly amount to much. The administration badgers him to transfer elsewhere, but even while prepubescent he’s too smitten with Marie to take the hint. Each year he jabbers through his minute with her, seeming to charm a girl who thinks she’s uncharmable. She has such a hold on him that, a few years after graduation, he tracks her down and spends their usual one minute telling her the impossible: That he’s found a way to change their frequencies — to give them “compatible resonance.”
The first third is told from Marie’s perspective. Eleanor Wyld plays her as grown up, and measures up to the movie’s trickiest moment: the first time Marie is really stirred by the sloppy feelings that urge the rest of us along. Marie’s never loved, but she’s no virgin, telling Zak that she’s conducted her share of “experiments” and that sex must be like masturbating with a partner.
Soon, Fisher doubles back and shows us Zak’s much nervier side of things, spiriting us again through their school days with double-time brio, offhandedly clearing up and establishing new mysteries. The structure is clever; you’ll think things like “Oh, that’s why he was so sweaty that one year.” Better still, it’s elegant and moving. It generates its own resonance.
Fisher never subordinates his big ideas to the usual chase scenes or manufactured love conflicts less confident filmmakers use to candy up such material. That’s great — too bad that, in the final third, the movie also doesn’t subordinate those ideas to its own story, or to its earlier elegance of construction. Instead the ideas swell up, multiply like Tribbles, and finally encompass mind control, ancient conspiracies, questions of free will versus determinism, and what your brain is doing when it somehow knows a melody it’s never heard before. It’s like a Richard Powers novel crammed into a couple of reels.
Fisher layers the stronger early scenes with homages to Magritte: Kids in ties hold green apples; a father’s curved pipe lays on a swatch of brown, clearly a real pipe rather than the idea of one. The promise of Surrealism is that there is no explanation. But the gentle mysteries of such imagery gives way to gushing précis of everything much later on, the connections between Mozart and a government cover-up and the science-fair projects the leads conducted a decade before all laid out in monologues. Some of the cleverness is distractingly cute, especially the fact that Marie, Zak, and their classmates all are named after great scientists and theorists: Her middle name is Curie; his is Newton.
There’s too little of the verve of the opening scenes, and it leaves our lovers and their mad travails with a new, more pressing problem of scale. In comparison to the God-sized revelations at the end, these kids’ problems don’t amount to Bogart’s hill of beans.
The movie’s two modes actually reflect its protagonists’ troubles: It repels when we want to lean into it. But it reveals Fisher as a filmmaker of great gifts and even greater promise.