starring Sathya Sridharan, Paton Ashbrook, Dana Ashbrook
written by Justin Moretto, Eric Schultz, Thomas Torrey
directed by Eric Schultz
by Walter Chaw The engine driving Eric Schultz's Minor Premise, already tangled and the highest of high concepts, is in fact deceptively simple: What would happen if we could map every individual personality trait we house in our heads and then, once mapped, what would happen if we tried to isolate the one we liked? Jerry Lewis did a variation on this with his The Nutty Professor, a film that is, among other things, a withering assessment of former partner Dean Martin and his single setting of sociopathic charm. Lewis indicts himself as well as buck-toothed and bumbling, brilliant but pathetic, yearning for some Dino blood to stiffen his backbone. Minor Premise posits that "Rat Pack" is just one of nine settings for us; brilliant, troubled scientist Ethan (Sathya Sridharan) wonders if his productivity might be elevated by cutting out all the noise and letting "intellect" take the wheel.
There's a disturbing moment in Pete Docter's unresolved Inside Out where a young teen girl has something like a psychotic break when one of her emotions gains supremacy over all the others. In that film, it's played neither to any sort of satisfying conclusion nor with any real gravity, but Schultz centres Minor Premise around the fallout of such a fracture. Ethan's machine is the brainchild of his recently-departed father, and Ethan's given the doodad the burden of his grief and the insupportable weight of his inherited legacy. Small wonder he does what he does to his dad's partner, Malcolm (Dana Ashbrook), when Malcolm makes the mistake of using Ethan's dad as a cudgel for better results. More than just the playing out of a premise, Schultz wants to locate the source of ambition and the inadequacy of the social mechanisms in place for men to grieve. Ethan's desire to isolate his intellect at the expense of his "anxiety" and even "libido" is testament to a certain devaluing that goes on in a boy's hardwiring. For Ethan to feel actualized, he needs to split from both his father and the object he's imbued with the judgement of his father, who only ever taught Ethan that he had some potential for greatness he was squandering.
Ethan self-medicates with alcohol. Ostensibly it's to mute his sorrow, though I think it's more to muffle the disapproving voices in his head. Ethan's alcoholism is his first experiment with emotional compartmentalization. Minor Premise's brain-machine, then, becomes a metaphor for...is it therapy? At the least, it's the extreme solipsism that therapy requires. I like the scene in which Ethan talks to a classroom of students over Zoom where the extreme state of his isolation and paranoia is disguised by the narrowness of the webcam's gaze and the forgiveness we confer "genius" when the person starts acting mad. I like, too, the film's conceit that each of his nine personas gains control over Ethan's body in six-minute chunks--meaning that Ethan "prime" wakes every 48 minutes or so to see the destruction left in the wake of his other pieces à la Dr. Jekyll or Bruce Banner. Join the club, Ethan. What's great is that he and his ex, his brilliant colleague Alli (Paton Ashbrook), successfully label these personas through a process of elimination--except for one. And that one, #8, only identifies itself by its inability to stop smoking.
Minor Premise works through its tangle with a deft touch: one moment a romance, the next a horror movie. Scenes of Ethan agonizing over details as he meticulously ticks off steps in the Scientific Method reminded me a little of Seth Brundle's mental gymnastics in Cronenberg's The Fly. Director Schultz presents his thesis through CCTV footage, flashbacks, hallucinations, and tight editing schemes that underscore Ethan's isolation and growing terror, sure, but also and most importantly the idea that as the hero of his own, ever-shifting melodrama, Ethan is the avatar for all our broken-down fragments. Puzzles with one or two missing pieces. Gaining comparisons to Shane Carruth's indie sensation Primer, Minor Premise is actually the version of Primer that works--neither so caught up in the details as to stultify nor so emotionally cold as to ironically distance. Like the best science-fiction, it nails those three tenets of the genre once described by J.G. Ballard: time, identity, and space. I'm excited to see what else Schultz and his co-writers Justin Moretto and Thomas Torrey have in the barrel.