Not many movies can lay claim to having invented a subgenre, but Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan’s 16mm curio For the Plasma comes closer than most. A lo-fi cabin-in-the-woods stock-market mini-thriller, Plasma proceeds from this delicious, perverse premise: A disturbed prodigy cloistered off from the world, immersed in a den of mysterious technology, summons a docile understudy to the residence to work as an assistant. That setup echoes Alex Garland’s recent Ex Machina, but where Garland’s movie is the kind of foreboding pop thriller that disguises its seriousness with outrageous set pieces, For the Plasma finds genuine, almost innocent-seeming delight in its own swerves in style and rhythm.
Bryant and Molzan favor variety over consistency: Some scenes are dominated by fixed compositions, others by a camera that trots along with the characters, and others still by montage. The tone shifts, too, with the most inspired beats at once scary and silly, puzzle-piece complex and joyously relaxed, as when the two leads — wunderkind Helen (Rosalie Lowe) and her new summer helper, Charlie (Anabelle LeMieux) — take Sharpies to the financial pages of the Times, making circles and underlining key terms.
The psychological energy here unsettles: Helen has already complained to Charlie about experiencing vertigo-like episodes, and the spectacle of her random scribbling is familiar from innumerable horror movies. Yet Bryant and Molzan complicate the interaction with a sunny disposition, the table charmingly strewn with flowers and Cheerios. The scene ends with Charlie, inspired by her reading of Kobo Abe’s The Ark Sakura, using the markers to outline the plight of “an eupcaccia, or a clockbug,” a fictional insect that moves only in circles, subsisting on its own excrement. What begins as an illustration of Helen’s psychosis concludes, four minutes later, with a poop joke, Charlie drawing bugs and shit on the paper of record.
Unlike the defiled newspaper, the digital technology that pervades Plasma is ominous and not to be messed with. In the remote Maine cabin where she lives and works, Helen scans CCTV footage for signs of forest fires; she also interprets the images to make cryptic, weirdly accurate stock-market predictions.
At the outset, Plasma exhibits a blasé sense of humor, with a static camera showing Lowe and LeMieux deliver their lines in straight deadpan. Bryant and Molzan go on to offset that tenor with lovably peculiar — even cheesy — splashes of style. When one character wakens to noises in the middle of the night, the jarring shift to a wobbly handheld camera suddenly turns this handmade indie into a full-on Blumhouse production.
Later, a phone call between Charlie and her offscreen boyfriend is punctuated by a totally uncalled-for tilt up to a treetop, while an encounter between the girls and the local lighthouse operator (Tom Lloyd) during a power outage is lit entirely by flashlight, the chatty stranger passing the illumination back and forth. It’s decisions like these that lend Plasma its contagious charm, each scene playing like the discovery of a new tempo.
For the Plasma
Directed by Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan
Opens July 21, Anthology Film Archives