Film Review: I'll Follow You Down

This sturdy sci-fi drama admirably poses some big questions, but doesn't possess the dramatic firepower to answer them effectively.

Among the many advantages of hiring seasoned genre professionals to act in your own independently made science-fiction/fantasy/horror/three-in-one production are: 1) The fans of those actors' previous career-defining, Comic-Con-approved performances generally follow them anywhere, even to small-scale indie fare; and 2) Thanks to their many years of confronting aliens, monsters and the like, they have an instinctual understanding for how to make the weirdest, wildest plot developments seem plausible.

Richie Mehta's on-point casting of Victor "Alias" Garber and Gillian "X-Files" Anderson—as father and daughter no less—in his Ray Bradbury-influenced sophomore feature I'll Follow You Down indicates that he has a firm grasp on the importance of cult star wattage to low-budget genre filmmaking. (That Anderson and Garber are, respectively, the onscreen mother and grandfather of The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment, no longer the diminutive tyke who sees dead people, is even more slyly amusing.) Having these two pros around smooths out the movie's lumpy expository passages and readies the audience for the exact moment when the writer-director flips over his sci-fi trump card.

And Mehta isn't about to get to the weird stuff early; for its first act, I'll Follow You Down plays as a straightforward domestic drama, one that opens with the unexpected disappearance of cutting-edge scientist Gabe (Rufus Sewell) and the devastating emotional fallout that's visited upon his adoring wife, Marika (Anderson), and their young son, Erol. Flash-forward a decade later and Erol (now bearing Osment's face and form) has mostly come to terms with his dad's vanishing—and is even in the process of following him into the science trade—but Marika can't let go of the past, requiring regular counseling (and a steady diet of pills) to keep the thoughts of what might have happened to her husband at bay. Distraught over his daughter's deteriorating mental state, Sal (Garber) comes to Erol and suggests they solve the mystery of what happened to Gabe once and for all.

It's here that the movie makes its sci-fi intentions known; in a development that's almost more worthy of Madeleine L'Engle than Bradbury, Sal reveals that, prior to his disappearance, Gabe had been in the process of building his very own time-travel device, one that bridged the present and the past via a space-and-time-bending wormhole. His specific goal was to travel back to the late ’40s and have a sit-down with none other than Albert Einstein himself to jaw about his revolutionary discovery, but a scan of local news headlines from that time turns up a story about the mugging and murder of a "John Doe" who matches Gabe's description. If his son and father-in-law can crack the secret to his time-jump, maybe—just maybe—they can bring him home again…changing all of their lives in the process.

Following this revelation, a studio-backed version of this story would likely waste little time dispatching Erol back to the Big Band era. But partly due to his own storytelling interests (and partly due to his limited budget), Mehta delays his hero's departure in favor of a deep dive into the pros and cons of this time-changing mission. While having his father back and preventing his mother's tragic slide into depression would top the "Pro" column, on the "Con" side Erol has a girlfriend, Grace (Susanna Fournier), who he adores and he doesn't want to jeopardize their romantic history by altering his own. Complicating matters further is the fact that Grace—who is fully aware of her boyfriend's crazy plan—is pregnant and can't abide the thought of Erol's time-travel shenanigans changing their future.

Mehta's admirable interest in exploring the emotional and philosophical quandaries posed by a seemingly routine sci-fi premise feels like vintage Bradbury, whose best stories tackled Big Ideas in profound, resonant ways without stinting on entertainment value. If only Mehta were as skilled a writer as Bradbury; I'll Follow You Down has an unfortunate tendency to literalize his own Big Ideas in stilted dialogue, where the venerated author would have more gracefully addressed them through suggestion and metaphor. And while Garber and Anderson—and to a lesser extent, Osment, whose performance never quite snaps into focus—bring the full force of their conviction to every scene, the movie struggles to make its thematic ambitions dramatically engaging. While it has its modest charms, overall I'll Follow You Down plays like a sturdy first draft of a richer, better-told sci-fi yarn.

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