While most of our body stands on sound scientific investigation, the brain remains that most elusive of unexplainable dominions. Why are some people geniuses, while others struggle simply to exist? Do our dreams really signify something or are they merely the manifestations of our subconscious' neurological recycling? Perhaps the greatest mystery facing those invested in medical research is the growing number of autistic children. With its strong genetic base, and confusing symptomology, the occurrence of this once rare condition has skyrocketed in recent years. This has led to a clearer focus on the subject, and in return, a greater profile in that most reflective of mediums - film. One such example is Eric Leiser's Imagination. Using the story of stricken twins, and a doctor hoping to unlock their lost world, the filmmaker explores the limits of fantasy, and how the mind can hold undeniable wonders - and unfathomable horrors.
Sarah is almost blind. Her twin sister Anna appears to have a rare form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome. Together, they are locked in an almost inseparable trance, their communication limited to shared visions, occasional outbursts, and disturbing symbols. Their parents find the children difficult to deal with. Father eventually leaves, while Mother tries desperately to get a noted neuro-psychologist to cure her daughters. But Dr. Reineger fears there is more to this particular situation than chemical imbalances and hereditary happenstance. These girls may be seeing into the fate of the entire world in their stream of consciousness images, and what they supposedly see is unnerving at best.
You've got to hand it to Eric Leiser. It takes creative cajones the size of the Mayo Clinic to take on a subject as tricky as mental illness - or in this case, neurological dysfunction - and keep it from being a preachy, predicable disease of the week kind of weeper. The sparkling independent effort Imagination is anything but a limp Lifetime movie, avoiding all the clichés within this type of narrative while investing the film with a far amount of invention and insight. We've all heard tales of twins and their inexplicable psychic connection, how one sibling senses what the other is feeling and visa versa. Well, Imagination is one of the few films that wants to explore the inner workings of that connection. Using stop motion animation, various post-production techniques, and other storyline supposition, Leiser unlocks the inferred secrets of such biological sameness, and then inserts a somber meditation on fate, religion, love, loss, and family into the mix. This is not a straightforward look at said subjects. Instead, Leiser goes the tone poem route, revising his plot with pictures and proposals. He never fully gives away his motives, and this then becomes one of Imagination's undeniable strengths.
Certainly there are limits to what he can do under such microscopic budgetary constraints. One of the elements that suffers is the acting. As the twins, Nikki and Jesse Haddad show some skill, but they also fail to fully 'become' their condition. In fact, their performances seem acceptable if only because the animated material colors in shades the actresses tend to overlook. As for Dr. Reineger, Ed K. Gildersleeve suffers from a one-note identity. He brings a lot of passion and power to his determined doctor, but it's all channeled toward a kind of unnatural anxiety. He seems to be holding back information, knowledge that would make Imagination deeper than it already is. With this trio required to do most of the narrative heavy lifting, other characters seem unimportant or overtly ancillary. Both the mother and father are blink and you'll miss them minor, while various people float in and out of the situations without leaving an impact. On the human side of things, Imagination is only decent. Thankfully, Leiser and his musician brother Jeffrey are artistically able to compensate.
This is a wonderful film to WATCH, allowing yourself to simply sit back and allow the images to wash over you. Leiser may lean toward early David Lynch, especially when it comes to mixing the beautiful with the disturbing, but there are also snippets of Ken Russell and Darren Aronofksy in his style and approach. Even in the non-animated sequences, his lens always seems to find the most provocative position to heighten his mood. His brother also helps the ambience quite a bit. The score for Imagination is wonderful, delicate and diabolical with just enough welcome wistfulness to keep things from getting too goofy. In many ways, this movie is more like an opera instead of a straight ahead narrative. Instead of arias however, the Leisers use pictures and music to transcend the material's potential medical and/or maudlin overdrive. Indeed, it's art, and all the artificial meaning said skill set can deliver, which makes Imagination so imminently entertaining. Had we been subjected to a standard doctor/patient relationship, medical mumbo-jumbo inserted to gain Peabody Award attention, there'd be little here to recommend. But thanks to the outsized originality of the man behind the camera, this is one eclectic offering that stays with you long after it's over.
Presented by Vanguard Cinema in a decent DVD package, the tech specs for Imagination are a tad catch as catch can. The 1.66:1 anamorphic image looks grainy and slightly overexposed, as if the celluloid was purposely saturated with light to get the look Leiser was after. In other places, the digital format lets him down, a slight amount of pixilation evident in a few of the outdoor sequences. Still, there is a professional quality to this presentation, a visual flare that helps us ignore the occasional source issues.
The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 is also quite acceptable. The score sounds amazing in this mix, the speakers providing a true emotional experience within this music. The dialogue is always discernible, and the ambient elements utilized to increase the atmosphere are captured well. All in all, the sonic situation is much better than the picture provided.
Vanguard does a nice job of filling out this release. Under the "Special Features" portion of the menu, there is a Making-of (entertaining), a post-screening Q&A with the filmmaker (enlightening), a text-based statement from Leiser, and a Behind the Scenes peek at how the animation was achieved (very detailed and engaging). Under the "Extras" portion of the menu, there are a few isolated tracks from Jeffery's soundtrack (fantastic), as well as a collection of stills. The one thing garnered from all this material is that there is a lot more to Imagination than some experimental, avant-garde grandstanding. Leiser makes it known that there are deep philosophical and religious elements to the film, and his explanations and discussions really do help us see his point.
For anyone whose adventured beyond the mainstream to sample the fringe of filmmaking, it's clear that there is a fine line between ambition and abomination. The slightest slip up, and your so-called visionary journey through the center of your mind is just mental motion picture masturbation. Thankfully, Imagination avoids these potential pitfalls, relying on the unstoppable invention of Eric Leiser to forge its cinematic staying power. While a rating of Highly Recommended would be easily warranted, this critic acknowledges a couple of marketplace realities. First, not every film fan is going to cotton to this 70 minute movie. Aside from the running time, they may not appreciate what the director is trying to do. In addition, this is still a no-budget production, no matter the originality or creativity in place. As a result, even with the excellent DVD content, the score will be dropped down to Recommended, just to be realistic. This doesn't mean that Imagination is any less valid. It simply supports the concept that not everyone is ready for this kind of untried experience. Take the risk, however, and you'll be richly rewarded.