Written and Directed by Franklin Ritch | 93 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | on Digital and VOD
Every once in awhile a new filmmaker shows up that just floors you. It’s usually due to one or two elements that feel so fully and impressively realized it’s hard to believe they haven’t been around for decades. Franklin Ritch is one. The IMDB tells me Ritch has a number of short films, web series, and one feature, the clumsily titled, Teardrop Goodbye with Mandatory Directorial Commentary by Remy Von Trout, but you can bet I’ll be seeking it out.
What works especially well with The Artifice Girl is the script. It explores that perennial question in science fiction lit and film — especially material written and inspired by Philip K Dick: what does it mean to be human? Is it memory and emotion? And at what point is a machine able to achieve those recognizable markers? Furthermore, if it does, what do we do then? The Artifice Girl can join the best of relatively recent fare — Her, Ex Machina, and Blade Runner 2049 — that thoughtfully explores these ideas, except on what looks like a micro-budget.
The story is told as a triptych, three different time periods in three interior locations, with a couple very brief ventures beyond those walls. In the first, a programmer, Gareth (Ritch), is debriefed in a room by two law enforcement agents, Deena (Sinda Nichols) and Amos (David Girard). They’re sure he’s been using a little girl, Cherry (Tatum Matthews), to lure and identify online predators. The agents will find out something important about who Cherry is. In the third segment we meet Lance Henriksen, an actor who first found fame playing a synthetic human, which can’t help but resonate in his casting.
More than that about the plot I don’t think I’ll say — this is a film where the less you know going in, the more satisfying you’re likely to find it.
The film doesn’t entirely deliver on all fronts, beyond that jaw-dropping script. The wordiness of the dialogue and the speed it’s delivered sometimes works against Ritch’s instincts as a director — he’d rather crystalize his next idea than give his actors a chance to really settle into the material — a few more beats here and there would’ve been welcome. It may be the case he’s not necessarily the best director of his own script.
But what a script. The intense discussions between the actors in close quarters are entirely electric, both the ideas on display and the way they’re expressed — exploring the ethics of AI and its possible evolution. The intimacy just add to the tension and suspense, even as it sometimes feels like it could be a black box theatre production. The material is so compelling the visual challenge of keeping the viewer’s interest is barely a concern — Ritch vaults over any possibility of a stultifying static.
What’s maybe most impressive is a sense of forgiveness that ends up being the film’s takeaway. Unlike so many other films about this subject where the tech is an antagonist, which reflects the current moment of real anxiety: Will our creations destroy us? That’s not the point here. Rather, it’s this: What can we learn from our children, whatever their nature, and what responsibility do we have to our creations?