Movies: Come True (2020)

Billed as a scifi horror, but really more akin to a waking nightmare, the Canadian film Come True had its debut at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, and went on to become one of the most divisive horror films of the year. While some found it slow and pretentious, with an ending that seemingly negated everything that came before it, others (like me, for example) found it a profoundly unsettling near-masterpiece that had me glued to the screen from the very first frame. Fans of David Lynch, Philip K. Dick, and the cinema of the subconscious will likely find much to enjoy here.

Come True was written, directed, edited, and largely scored by filmmaker, visual effects artist, and musician Anthony Scott Burns, who also supervised the effects on the excellent 2012 film The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh, and directed the Father’s Day segment of the 2016 anthology film Holidays, as well as the 2018 feature-length film Our House.

Like most films, Come True is much better going into it with no foreknowledge of where it’s headed; that said, in order to have a proper discussion about it, I may have to spoil some plot points, so please be warned. This is also a film that will definitely need a second watch to sort out all of the symbolism and the questions left unanswered.

Julia Sarah Stone plays an eighteen-year-old woman named Sara Dunn. Sara appears essentially homeless; she sleeps in a park, and seems to only sneak back into her family home to shower and pick up clean clothes after her mother has left for the day. The reasons for Sara avoiding her mother are never really explained. It is also left unclear what year the story is taking place in; all the cars, technology, and fashions seem to vaguely suggest the 1980s, but Sara has a modern iPhone. There is a definite sense of dreamlike disconnect from the very start of the film, compounded further by the desaturated color scheme, the frequent use of flickering CRT imagery, and the eerie, synth-heavy score.

Sara has been having a hard time sleeping, as every time she drifts off, she has intensely disquieting nightmares that consist of strange architectures and a shadowy figure with glowing eyes. I’m not gonna lie, these nightmare sequences are one of the highlights of the film, and they creeped me right the fuck out.

Because she’s in need of money and also a better place to sleep, she signs up for a university sleep study that pays twelve dollars an hour. Once she enters the study, the true purpose of which is withheld by the technicians, she meets a handful of other people undergoing the study, including four men and one other woman named Emily, who shares a room with her. The subjects are dressed in soft white suits bedecked with wires, and wear padded helmets that transfer data to the scientists while the subjects sleep.

The first night or two go just fine, but one morning, after doing her daily exit interview with the people running the study, Sara is shown a series of hazy photographs that seem to suggest images she saw in her dream the night before. For the most part, she can’t tell what they are, but seeing the last one, which depicts what looks like the shadow figure, causes her to have a panic attack, and she vows to quit the study because it’s messing with her mind.

Meanwhile, Sara appears to be being stalked by a young man with a beard and glasses, who she soon discovers is a graduate student who is working on the sleep study. His name is Jeremy, but everyone calls him Riff, after Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He seems to have taken a little bit of a shine to Sara, but she tells him that she isn’t going to continue the study unless he tells her what it’s for. Against his better judgment, he confesses that the technicians have been watching the subjects’ dreams, since they have technology that converts brain waves into images. Jeremy tells her that they are particularly interested in the appearance of this shadow figure, which has turned up in all the subjects’ dreams, and has also often materialized in Jeremy’s dreams as well.

As the story goes on, the shadow figure seems to begin manifesting in the real world, or at least shows up simultaneously in the sleep paralysis episodes of two of the subjects. Sara apparently sees it while she’s at a laundromat, and passes out for some undetermined amount of time, during which some boys supposedly come in and steal her phone, at least according to a blind woman who wakes her up to tell her about it.

From there, the film gets more amorphous, though it remains relatively straightforward, if that makes any sense. The nightmares get more ominous, and the line between reality and dreams becomes more blurred. Characters disappear without explanation, and you’re left wondering how much of what we’re seeing is real. If this gives you any indication of its vibe, the film is divided into four chapters that are named after Jungian archetypes: Persona, Anima and Animus, The Shadow, and The Self.

By the end, which some reviewers absolutely hated, the events of the film have been recontextualized, and the viewer has to suss out where exactly the break with reality occurred, or indeed if the entire film is taking place inside Sara’s subconscious, or even the collective unconscious.

Come True is absolutely not for everyone, but for me, it hit all of the right notes. The whole look and feel of it drew me right in, and it was so immersive that I couldn’t look away. It’s definitely one of the eeriest films I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, and even during some of the languid shots with little dialogue, I found myself completely riveted by the unfolding mystery. The end didn’t feel like a cop-out to me, but simply an invitation to delve deeper into the story. This is definitely one I’m going to rewatch in the near future and nerd out about, because I love films like this, that are so deliciously open to interpretation. It’s hands down one of the best indie horrors I’ve seen in a long, long while.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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