Director: Rohit Colin Rao
Starring: Silas Gordon Brigham, Sam Repshas, Cate Buscher, Nathan Walker, Ricardo Kingsbury, Josh Davidson, Regan Wilson
Modern-day American independent filmmaking, in such large measure, apes Hollywood product — or, alternately, movies made during the last great frontier boom of indie cinema, in the 1990s — in large part because the (perceived) reward seems to be informing the process. The increased democratization of film comes at the same time as a slew of TV reality show contests where “winners” are ushered inside the palace, and given a shot at all their professional and personal dreams.
Perhaps perversely, this seems to have seeped into the national well-water of the collective creative subconscious; would-be filmmakers so want to make films that they often make their first film with an eye on how it can be used to get them their next film. (This may be changing, but slowly; avant-garde and micro-budget movies like “Pi” or “Tarnation” may have left their marks, in a way, but they hardly ushered in an era of widespread experimental cinema, or an army of Junior John and Johanna Sayles.) None of this aforementioned symptomatology, thankfully, is evident in “Ultrasonic,” a savvy, artful, well constructed little domestic drama of paranoia that builds its story around its limited production means but never sacrifices its thematic inquiry, its essence, its core.
Set in Washington, D.C., director Rohit Colin Rao’s movie centers around Simon York (Silas Gordon Brigham), an aspiring musician with a pregnant wife, Ruth (Cate Buscher), and financial problems that are beginning to take their toll. When Simon starts experiencing aural problems, and hearing a persistent buzz that is imperceptible to anyone else, Ruth tells his it’s probably stress and work-related, and urges him to see a doctor. Simon does, and he learns that he can hear in lower and upper registers unlike any other patient the doctor has seen. As the ailment worsens, Simon’s brother-in-law Jonas (Sam Repshas), an eccentric conspiracy theorist, peddles the notion that this is the result of a strange experiment gone wrong. Shadowy figures and mysterious black boxes posted on nearby lampposts trip the wires of Simon’s dark and panicked imagination. But is this merely a shared psychosis, his psychological vulnerability attaching itself to Jonas’ troubled mind, or actually part of something more sinister?
Rao, working from a script co-written with Mike Maguire, serves as his own composer and cinematographer, lending “Ultrasonic” a carefully manicured, just-so production package. The film is crisply, engagingly and digitally shot on a Canon T2i, its black-and-white hues only slightly sepia-toned and punctuated by but a few notable splashes of color. The framing, meanwhile, feeds Simon’s increasing sense of isolation.
The story? Well, it’s not dark or really edgy, per se, but there’s an often hypnotic and occasionally unsettling quality to Rao’s marriage of sound and image. “Ultrasonic” is a mid-tempo affair, one of the more difficult modes to sustain in feature-length filmmaking. Songs from two of Rao’s erstwhile bands, Tigertronic and the Translucents, open and close the movie, respectively, serving as nice bookends, but the electronic compositions in between give Rao’s debut a moody and sometimes frenetic feeling. “Ultrasonic” doesn’t really work if one is leaning forward constantly, in search of clearly delineated narrative markers. There’s an aura of mystery that hangs like an early morning mist, but the menace never manifests itself in overly hammy ways.
Instead, Rao trusts in himself, and his collaborators. And he’s mostly quite rewarded by his locally assembled talent. The bearded Repshas, faintly reminiscent of the late Ryan Dunn, has a scruffy charisma, and Brigham is centered and quietly magnetic in a lead role that would quickly grow tiresome if played with more feverish panic. Especially in its ambiguous ending, “Ultrasonic” slots in alongside an impressive recent spate of little film festival-minted diamonds in the rough — the biggest being “Sound of My Voice,” starring Brit Marling; a couple others still awaiting or searching for distribution — that arrive at a place of tonal settledness without answering all of the big(gest) questions of their respective narratives. Does this indicate a barometric shift, a change in the creative appetite for the sort of distinct indistinctness that real life most readily provides? Maybe. One can hope.
NOTE: For more information on the movie, including its playdates and VOD options, visit www.UltrasonicMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon