California brothers Eric and Jeffrey Leiser have crafted an animated and live-action art film that's more accessible if less technically accomplished than the work of those other avant-garde animating brothers, the Quays. Their sad and hypnotic tale of prepubescent twin girls with the autism-like Asperger syndrome and nature-based, possibly precognitive visions ends with the fetal ambiguity of 2001: A Space Odyssey, albeit with less mythological punch.
Redheaded twins Anna (Nikki Haddad) and Sarah (Jessi Haddad) Woodruff live in some generic any-city that even momentary blinks of the Transamerica Tower don't establish as being San Francisco. Roughly 10 or 11 years old, they suffer from Asperger's, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) characterized by difficulties in social communication and skills, and repetitive peculiarities. Sarah, as well, is going blind. Child psychologist and researcher Dr. Reineger (the marvelous Edmund Gildersleeve) tries to assure their mother, Janice (Courtney Sanford), that her kids are off-the-chart smart and "intricately involved in their own imagination." But this news doesn't help the exasperated mom or the impatient and ultimately defeated dad (Travis Poelle) when the girls play with their food at dinner.
The girls can't help it—we see the magical patterns that their macaroni and vegetables make, alive and inviting. Who would eat such wonderful creatures? When we see the girls through their parents' eyes later, however, there's less wonder than quiet horror as the twins play a highly intricate, mime-like game of patty-cake as if on automatic pilot. It's like they're just machines, just fleshy robots, with some kind of short in their wiring.
The fairly linear narrative is slight—the children enter an institute to be studied, two family tragedies occur, and the girls go AWOL—but we take evocative detours into their minds. And what things those minds are: castles, craggy ocean shores, clay-animated musicians with four eyes, snowcapped peaks, and, often, a fawn and a stag. In their mind, too, is music—songs, hints of hymns, jaunty yet melancholic strings.
The twins view themselves as not normal, and wish their parents could see what they see even though the girls know that will never happen. "We can live in our imaginations," says one to the other, who answers, "But we live in this world, too." To which the first sadly acknowledges, "We weren't made for this world." That leaves them free to seek another, which they do.
Eric Leiser—who directed, animated, co-edited and, with brother and music composer Jeffrey Leiser, co-scripted—sweeps us through an array of gently bizarre beasties, times and places, such as primordial forest where the white elms are covered with eyes. The most amazing sequence involves an earthquake evinced solely through shaky camera, sound effects, stop-motion dirt and rocks and rapid-fire cuts. One of the animation supervisors is Stephen Chiodo, of the animators/special-effects artists The Chiodo Brothers—what is it with animation and brothers, going back all the way to the Fleischers?
While the dialogue recording leaves a bit to be desired, and the actress playing mom is stiff and forced, the Leiser Brothers' film well evokes the trauma, abandonment fears and magical reality of childhood. In doing so, the fertile Imagination might just be a midnight movie for soccer moms.