It starts in Buenos Aires, then winds up Mozambique. Once there, Argentine director Eduardo Williams’ first feature “The Human Surge” stops to watch a character urinate on a patch of dirt. After a few moments, the camera wanders closer to his target, zooms into the ground, ventures beneath it, and zeroes in on a tiny ant crawling through the earth. When it resurfaces, we’re suddenly in the Philippines.
This maneuver is typical of the acrobatic camerawork that Williams employs throughout his shrewd and inventive feature, the most ambitious debut of the year. And yet despite these canny maneuvers, “The Human Surge” has a noticeably rough quality that enhances its intimacy as it careens through three countries and finds a common thread in the technology and behavior uniting them all. A commentary on the freewheeling and at times dissociative relationship between young people and their immediate surroundings, the movie dwells on mundane moments even as it hints at greater abstract forces lurking under the surface. Williams is clearly building on the possibilities suggested by his 2015 short, “Could See a Puma,” which follows a group of energetic Vietnamese teens as they climb through a half-finished building and make their way to the roof, at which point the camera suddenly abandons them and drifts into the clouds.
“The Human Surge” takes the next step of that adventurous formalism, careening from different sides of the planet in alluring ways, besting pricier camera tricks with ceaseless innovation. Plot-wise, the movie offers significantly less material, but it’s rich in observation. The journey starts with 25-year-old Exe, who gets fired from his boring job at the local supermarket and wastes his days away with friends, toying around sexually in front of a web camera to make a quick dime on cybersex. As Exe wanders through a flooded neighborhood to the drab, shadowy interiors of his crammed apartment, occasional passers-by notice the shaky camera, which frequently lags behind and veers off-course.
That approach would lend an amateurish dimension if Williams weren’t acutely using the vernacular of amateur cinematography to explore these lives in intimate terms. Later, Exe loads an online video of some young Mozambique guys engaged in similar exhibitionism and enlarges their faces to fill the screen. As the scene drags on, with no warning, Williams puts us in the room with them — and stays in their world, which is clearly fraught with the same concerns plaguing Exe: Disgruntled Alf hates his job, can’t stand the neighborhood and years for something better. Eventually, he flees the town with another friend, and “The Human Surge” once again finds its way to another chapter. Like the floating camerawork in “Enter the Void,” the perspective in “The Human Surge” often has a ghostly quality, creating the sense of voyeurism even as the source of the perspective remains unclear. That itself makes for a provocative statement on the degree to which private lives no longer exist.
The slow-burn, meditative quality of the movie can make it a tough sit, but each new phase enhances the gamble of the project as a whole. The formats shift from Super 16mm to digital video as its world keeps opening up to new locations. The movie pushes forward in a daze, lost in its characters’ lives. Their ennui lacks the same degree of intrigue as the transitions that pull it all together; still, it’s just smart enough to hint at the possibilities at Williams’ disposal once he sharpens up his narrative abilities.
At the same time, this is a heckuva stimulating cinematic achievement for a relative newcomer. “The Human Surge” offers a shrewd commentary on the dissonance of technological connectivity and personal communication. No matter the global networking possibilities afforded by the digital age, it’s still possible to feel alone.
“The Human Surge” premiered at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.