The dreamworld has always been a source of terror, even before Freddy Krueger was slashing kids to pieces in their sleep. But Come True, the sophomore feature from writer-director Anthony Scott Burns (Our House), blurs the line between the subconscious mind and reality further than ever before by giving viewers a front row seat to other people’s nightmares. It’s certainly a fascinating concept, rife with possibilities for creepy, night-ruining introspection. The visuals are key, and although Burns purposely ends on a puzzling note, he can’t be faulted for the unique idea nor the execution — especially in the moments when it’s not entirely clear what’s real and what isn’t.
Opening right in the midst of a horrifying nightmare, the camera crawling through a dark cave before bursting through a mysterious door and finally confronting the kind of faceless specter one typically meets in video games and Tool videos, Come True immediately establishes that something dark is lurking deep inside the mind of protagonist Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone). The bad dream is, naturally, revealed to be hers, with the teen sleeping rough in a playground because she’s too frightened to go home and risk what will happen if she climbs back into her own bed. Dodging her worried mother, Sarah showers, changes and dutifully heads off to school.
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Sarah is visibly exhausted; yawning constantly and nodding off in class, the deep bags under her eyes betray an untold number of sleepless nights. Luckily, a local sleep study is looking for applicants. Sensing an opportunity for a place to stay and hopefully a bit more rest, Sarah agrees to take part. Since she suffers from vivid night terrors, the baby-faced 18-year-old represents something of a goldmine for the scientists conducting the experiment, who have figured out a way to visualize their subjects’ dreams, and practically lick their lips upon seeing hers. However, once Sarah views these horrifying nightmares herself, reality as she knows it starts to disintegrate.
Burns has name-checked the celebrated works of Nicolas Roeg, William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg as reference points for Come True, and indeed their influence is keenly felt throughout. But what he has crafted here is remarkably unique. Although a shirt bearing the logo “Romero Phys Ed,” a poster for The Terminator and the biggest pair of Coke bottle glasses this side of Bladerunner could all be interpreted as self-conscious nods, Burns threads these details into the narrative as a way to alert viewers that something is off. Old-school tech and Tron sleepsuits jar against the recurring smart-phones — exactly which time period is the film supposed to be set in?
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Come True’s dream sequences are vividly realized, tactile and evocative, whether they’re shown on a crackly screen or presented directly from within a character’s head. The atmosphere is thick with dread as Sarah is alternately haunted by a ghostly presence in the laundromat and secretly catches a glimpse of her crush’s dreams. Jeremy (Landon Liboiron, looking like a strange cross between Daniel Radcliffe and Gael García Bernal) is one of the scientists studying her, but it’s clear from an intimate dream that he’s also harboring feelings for his much younger charge (their obvious age difference is, thankfully, acknowledged).
Interstitials seem to be leading the way, but they’re not strictly necessary. If anything, the chapter breaks betray a disappointing lack of confidence in the material, unless their intention is to wrong-foot viewers, of course. Burns would’ve been better off simply presenting the story as is and allowing the weirdness to speak for itself, rather than paving the way with subheadings that, frankly, confuse more than they elucidate. Come True is gripping and unpredictable, almost to a fault. The many clues could have been woven in better, as the denouement lands with a slight thud, although this, too, may have been the intention since it replicates the feeling of being roused from a bad dream.
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Burns also tackled the cinematography himself and does a beautiful job with it. Visuals are so important in a film like this, where it’s rarely made explicitly clear whether a character is awake or dreaming. Pulling off the difficult balancing act of situating the story in a real, tangible environment that feels simultaneously off-kilter with the appropriate preternatural atmosphere is no small feat. The hypnotic synth-wave score, meanwhile, also by Burns, who worked alongside Pilotpriest and Electric Youth, suits the vibe eloquently. Shots of Sarah sleepwalking endlessly throughout the city (they filmed on location in Edmonton) are eerily lovely, complemented by its woozy tones.
Stone, who’s still early in her career with just a handful of credits to her name, does most of the heavy lifting. Hers is an astonishing central performance, led by a physicality that actors twice her age would struggle to pull off. Witness how her eyes flicker when Sarah is dreaming, or how her broken limbs traipse a path through the city and then the woods in search of a destination only she can see. Stone has the look of a teenager with the earned maturity of someone who’s been through some heavy shit, which lends itself well to her teenage prostitute in Honey Bee and works just as brilliantly in Come True. The difference is, this time around, Stone’s character can’t escape her own mind.
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Come True is utterly hypnotic, impressively strange, creepily involving and gorgeously put together. Some of its mystique drains away as the central mystery unravels, but the journey is so mesmerizing that the destination hardly matters.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.