Few cinematic tropes are as easy — and annoying — to deploy than the winking revelation that “it was all just a dream!” And while filmmaker Anthony Scott Burns mostly avoids falling into that particular narrative trap in “Come True,” a horror outing built around literal nightmares that just might be real, he can’t avoid other missteps that do similar damage to an otherwise compelling story. In just his second feature, Burns exhibits a real knack for world-building, mythology-making, and crafting real tension, but a series of stumbles in the film’s final act — the worst of which is run through with icky implications Burns seems terribly unaware of — end the film on a wearisome final point.
Most of the work that gets us there is good, however, and Burns’ ability to build an original horror film out of compelling ideas is obvious. Bolstered by a strong performance from Julia Sarah Stone and an intriguing setup, “Come True” has plenty of elements worth celebrating, though it’s hard to shake the disappointment that comes at the end of this protracted journey. A strong start helps, along with Burns’ interest in both the nightmare setting he steadily builds and the eerie real world that initially brings his characters together.
Sarah (Stone) has always had problems sleeping, though things have gotten considerably worse as her waking life has been thrown into disarray. When we first meet high schooler Sarah, she’s essentially a semi-runaway, sleeping in awkward places at night (a playground, her friend Zoe’s house) and sneaking into her own house in the morning to shower and grab clothes. The reason for the rift between Sarah and her mother, who seems eager to repair it, is never disclosed, but Burns and Stone deliver plenty of other information about Sarah’s frazzled state.
Moving through the world — rendered here in a muted, phlegmy palette — like a ghost, Sarah is in a permanent state of semi-exhaustion. The nightmares that plague her don’t help: a “Silent Hill”-esque dreamscape of twisted bodies, dark spaces, drippy caverns, and (always) a hunchbacked man waiting at the end of them. When Sarah discovers a flyer for a paid sleep study, it seems like a wonderful solution to her many problems. A safe place to sleep every night and possible answers to what ails her? It’s a no-brainer.
Soon, Sarah plunges into a strange underground sleep study subculture, complete with a futuristic sleep suit, a gaggle of other subjects who have been doing this for years, and a curiously tight-lipped set of researchers. While the study is overseen by the shady Dr. Meyer (Christopher Heatherington) — clearly a weirdo, as telegraphed by his oversized glasses and love of turtlenecks — it’s young Anita (Carlee Ryski, doing a lot with a little) who mostly attends to Sarah. Sarah’s sense that something is wrong with this whole setup is understandable, and as Anita and her coworkers begin to probe more deeply during their morning-after Q&As, Sarah grows even warier.
Burns’ script is just as concerned with the weirdness of Sarah’s waking life as it is the literal monsters that populate her dreams, and the filmmaker’s ability to balance and juxtapose those two portions of the film only strengthen each section. Inevitably, of course, they will start to blend, kicked off by a strange run-in Sarah has with Philip K. Dick-loving stranger Riff (Landon Liboiron) who suddenly starts popping up everywhere. That includes in the sleep study, where he becomes the one person willing to let Sarah in on what’s really happening behind the scenes (and, it seems, behind her lids).
It’s the introduction of Riff that mostly derails Burns’ otherwise well-crafted and compelling story, as his troubles and desires eventually overshadow Sarah (a much more compelling character, tucked into a better performance) and her own journey. Meanwhile, Burns seems uninterested — or unable — to engage with the implications of the growing bond between Sarah (again, a high school student who has essentially run away from home and is now at the mercy of a group of adults she doesn’t really know) and Riff (a man who can quite literally look inside her head and do whatever he wants with the information).
Perhaps Burns is not that unaware of what’s cooking below the surface, thanks to a queasy moment in which Sarah chirps that she’s eighteen (legally an adult, don’t you know) before the film’s most uncomfortable and woefully out of place sequence. It’s followed almost immediately by the film’s best, however, a mind-bending melding of the profound and the commonplace, opening up new questions and new possibilities at every turn, and hinting at a whole other world just beyond the veil. It may not be just a dream, but much of it proves to be a real nightmare.
An IFC Midnight release, “Come True” will hit select theaters, plus digital and VOD platforms on Friday, March 12.
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