Directed by Matthew Ninaber, Transference feels like a 13-and-under science fiction-themed board game. The pieces are clearly labeled, the color design fits the genre premise and the directions are confusing. Rather than trusting the audience to organically identify the conflict and key players, the film opens with a newspaper montage that blatantly foreshadows various plot points with text that’s either circled or underlined in red. It’s the need to immediately feel accessible that plagues Transference from the jump.
Transference stars Jeremy Ninaber as Josh, a 32-year-old man who keeps his twin sister Emma (Melissa Joy Boerger) in a psychiatric compound. Twenty years prior, the siblings lost their father in a car accident, leaving Josh to look after Emma, who’s been possessed by supernatural forces. In the present day, a doctor attempts to figure out what’s happening with Emma, and seems to believe that she’s capable of some “crazy shit.” Meanwhile, Josh fights for money at an underground fight club and struggles with survivor’s guilt. He also realizes that a mysterious Man in Black wants to find Emma.
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Aesthetically, Ninaber and co-cinematographer Brent Tremain create a murky atmosphere that’s similar to David Fincher’s Fight Club, which makes the underground combat scenes feel like a bit too much, especially with characters that wear Eyes Wide Shut-like masks (seemingly an homage to Stanley Kubrick). During Transference’s compound scenes, however, the filmmakers have a better handle on their storytelling when focusing on Emma’s backstory and supernatural powers. Unfortunately, Ninaber doesn’t thoroughly explore introduced subplots, whether it’s a government conspiracy or Josh’s backstory. And so it’s difficult to become fully invested in characters, good or bad, who seem like they were plucked from other films. For example, the Man in Black narrative looks good on paper, but a key mid-movie scene makes little sense: the Man in Black speaks like Darth Vader while standing yards apart from Josh in a rural and open road setting. It’s a small gripe, sure, but still an important one. To be fair, there could have been an intended comedic element, as Josh yells “What was that?” But the scene doesn’t play out that way and feels clunky, much like the opening sequence. (Ninaber co-edited Transference with Jeff Weber).
Transference’s collective performances are quite impressive. The director’s brother, Jeremy Ninaber, does his best with the material and exudes genuine star power. In her feature debut, Boerger shows a knack for scene rhythm and non-verbal performance. The pair carry the film, and both performers have that IT factor, but the script doesn’t afford them much character depth. There’s not enough sauce, not enough to chew on. In a supporting role, Aaron Tomlin delivers a memorable performance as the self-serving doctor who believes that Emma is “the singularity” – there’s a touch of Bruce Campbell’s Evil Dead character Ash Williams, as Tomlin plays it straight and then shifts gears for comedic purposes. Overall, though, Ninaber shows the most potential in Transference.
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Despite the awkward intro, Transference finds it groove from act to act. Ninaber commits to the underground premise and frames characters exceptionally well, but the story would’ve benefitted from a little more character depth. The co-leads seem like a strong indie coupling moving forward, as the film’s best moments emerge when they’re together. Behind the scenes, however, Transference has too many cooks in the kitchen, evidenced by the sour first taste.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor. He’s written for RogerEbert.com, REBELLER, Fandor and Screen Rant, among other outlets.