“Toru,” the new short from Jonathan Minard and Scott Rashap, took the internet by storm two weeks ago when distributor A24 dropped the film’s teaser trailer without warning or explanation. The glimpse may have puzzled those eager to pick apart its futuristic iconography or connection to a fictional narrative universe, but that teaser encapsulates what ultimately makes “Toru” engaging. “The Tree of Life” by way of “Black Mirror,” it’s an abstract, lyrical portrait of youthful insecurity and parental anxiety.
Sixty years from now, scientists have fashioned an experimental process that utilizes manufactured neural pathways to simulate an entire lifetime. Faced with an infant in the terminal stages of lung cancer, two Japanese parents opt to submit their young one, Toru, to this new treatment to give him a full life before he passes. What follows is a back-and-forth journey as the simulated Toru rapidly ages and his Year-2076 parents struggle with the ramifications of their choice.
The accelerated maturation of Toru’s surrogate takes place in an imagining of present-day, small-town America. (As a technician explains to Toru’s parents, it’s a model that comes from the collective mind of the American designers behind for the technology.) These quaint neighborhoods are observed from a Malickian drifting camera, with a voiceover to match. And like “Boyhood,” “Toru” opts to forego the standard, becoming-a-man markers of young adulthood, instead opting for a closer look at the simple moments in between.
As the simulated Toru (shown at various ages, but played as a teen by John Mullen) floats through and past his childhood, Minard and Rashap often follow his feet, taking literal steps toward a theoretical future he may never reach. As we begin to see these snapshots of Toru’s adolescence approach something less than idyllic, it underscores the difficulties faced by any parent who watches their kids grow up in a world beyond their control. If you know you’re bringing children into an environment that will likely be inhospitable, “Toru” asks, can you? Should you?
Foregoing overblown sci-fi effects, Minard and Rashap keep their Japan of the future to one of a neutral, minimalist aesthetic. This hospital setting may not have the gorgeous mountain view of Nathan’s AI mansion in “Ex Machina,” but “Toru” similarly blends the natural and the imagined for something that exists in a temporal gray area.
When Toru’s parents make a choice, armed with the knowledge they gain from this procedure, Minard and Rashap effectively keep the 14-minute story self-contained. However, this is a potent premise that would surely benefit from a longer runtime to examine the consequences. When the anxieties, fears, and hopes of parenthood are all captured in a quarter of hour, it’s hard not to imagine what lies just beyond the borders of this beautiful and frightening future.
“Toru” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.