By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Nicole Brydon Bloom, Giles Matthey and Taylor Nichols
Written and directed by David Marmor
Dark Sky Films
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” C.S. Lewis once wrote. This is precisely the well-intentioned if totally depraved inferno writer/director David Marmor invites us to sign a short-term lease on via his hypnotic, all-too-believable psych-cult chiller 1BR. Marmor’s extraordinarily well-executed debut feature resembles a reimagining of MELROSE PLACE executive-produced by the professors behind the Stanford prison experiment and the ghoulish architects of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
We first meet Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) adrift and medicated in Los Angeles, holed up in a trashy motel, toiling away as an underpaid/appreciated temp and harboring dreams of fashion design that her gruff father back home does not support or respect. In short, the comely 20something is seeking even the thinnest of reeds to grasp onto before she drowns in an ever-deepening pond of self-doubt, big-city coldness and modernity-induced ennui.
Salvation appears at hand when Sarah stumbles upon an open house for a—yep, you guessed it—one-bedroom apartment nestled in what feels less like multi-unit housing than akin to a folksy small-town oasis. Sure, the pad has all the usual amenities, but what really attracts Sarah is the people and the sense of community: There’s the highly progressive, borderline New Age-y couple serving as supers—played by Whit Stillman regular Taylor Nichols and AMERICAN HORROR STORY alum Naomi Grossman—an aging starlet (Susan Davis), who is sort of a kinder, quirkier iteration of Norma Desmond from SUNSET BOULEVARD, and a super-cute young man (Giles Matthey) around her age with whom she clearly vibes. Best of all, despite the dozens of other extroverted potential tenants threatening to obscure our introverted heroine, all these very special people choose her.
They like her! They really, really like her!
The roses being tossed Sarah’s way by these new neighbors are so fragrant and bright—and she is so very desperate to accept them—that she is not inclined to look for thorns. Alas, the prickers seek her out soon enough, plunging deeper into both her flesh and psyche than she (or us) could be expected to anticipate. Which is to say, if you think your apartment management company is bad, you should try living under the auspices of a group with frighteningly rigid ideas of how their community should live. If morally relativistic soliloquies don’t bring about the desired attitude adjustment, maybe a stress position will. Or something much, much physically worse. Yet while 1BR explores some extremely dark corners of the human condition, the real story here is about what it takes to maintain autonomy when societies, micro or macro, are absolutely determined to snuff it out. To keep her soul and have any chance of escape, Sarah must go to the precipice of indoctrination without falling over the edge.
That is a very nuanced battle, not only deftly conceived and paced by Marmor but, perhaps most essentially, actualized brilliantly by Bloom. The cast is overall is excellent, the antagonists all bringing a true starry-eyed brutality to life. There are great TWILIGHT ZONE-esque plot twists and unexpected allies to keep us engaged. The film, however, simply would not work if its lead did not have the range to take us from the purest vulnerability to against-all-odds bad-assery. It is her talent that makes the journey possible for the audience—and creates the space for us to ask very uncomfortable questions about the natures we’ll have to fight to establish the type of civilizations we say we all want.