Comet Zone: Inventive, unpredictable "Coherence" does a lot with a little

Coherence (2014) 
88 min., not rated (equivalent to PG-13).

Every once in a while, the story of how a film was made can be more interesting than the finished film itself (this year's overpraised "Locke" instantly comes to mind). That's not the case with "Coherence," a no-budget, heavily improvised relationship drama with a science-fiction bent. For his auspicious feature directorial debut, James Ward Byrkit (a storyboard artist and conceptual consultant for the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, as well as a voice performer and story creator for "Rango") assembled eight core actors in his house and shot over the course of five consecutive nights with no written script or prepared blocking, just a basic outline. Like a tricky episode of "The Twilight Zone," this tautly conceived, focused and low-key mind-twister/chamber piece presents a standard evening and then tosses it into an existential nightmare of funhouse mirrors. It very well could have been a stuffy exercise in single-location indie filmmaking, but less is more in its levels of ingenuity, tension and professionalism. 

The night a comet is reported to pass by the planet, eight dear friends gather for a dinner party hosted by flippant actor Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and his lovely wife Lee (Lorene Scafaria). Right when ex-ballet dancer Em (Emily Foxler) parks her car, her cell phone screen shatters. She takes the most interest in the alleged "Miller's Comet," but puts that aside once she gets wind of some dismaying newstheir friend Amir (Alex Manugian) is bringing the "vixen-y" Laurie (Lauren Maher), who used to date Em's current boyfriend, Kevin (Maury Sterling). Soon, everyone arrives, including Kevin and married couple Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and the granola-crunching Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), and the night gets off to a civil start over candlelit dinner. Then another person's phone cracks and stops working. Then there's a power outage. They spot through the window a single well-lit home, so a couple of the guys go to investigate and what they bring back with them sets off a surreal chain of events. To say more would be foolish, so details of how the night progresses shall be preserved.

Based on a story written by the director and actor Alex Manugian, "Coherence" must have been quite the undertaking. With such barebones filmmaking going on here, the film surely is more about metaphysical ideas than dazzling visuals, although it accomplishes a proper mood through the stripped-down intimacy of Nic Sadler's on-the-fly cinematography. On one level, director James Ward Byrkit could have never injected the impending sci-fi element and he would still have had something worthwhile, like a compelling, observational interactive study of friends and former flames. We spend just enough time with these people that we feel we know them from our own lives. The best way to explain what happens next without getting into the weeds of the narrative contortions is simply this cross-stitch 2001's "The Anniversary Party," 2004's "Primer," and 2013's "+1," three movies that the majority of people has not seen, so the viewer has no choice but to just dive into the Rubik's cube without testing the waters.

Imbued with a distressing paranoia, unease and foreboding, the film gradually pays off one's patience if it's been tried at first. Repetition and little clues, including band-aids, photos, glow sticks, a ketamine-laced drug cocktail, a book on quantum-physics theories, and a ping-pong paddle, figure into a fascinating tapestry. The 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow-starring romantic-comedy-fantasy "Sliding Doors" gets a name-drop, and there's also a cute running joke with Mike ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer" regular Nicholas Brendon) who used to have a long-running gig on the real, albeit long-defunct, TV show "Roswell"; he was the lead, but Laurie, an avid watcher of the show, doesn't remember him. In what is a pure ensemble piece, everyone in the roster of familiar-looking but low-profile thespians is great. (Interestingly, Lorene Scafaria, as Lee, is the one who wrote and directed 2012's apocalyptic romantic-comedy "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.") There's a raw naturalism all around, a real chemistry that developed within a five-day shoot but palpably builds a longtime history with friends, and an overlapping to the unscripted dialogue. Emily Foxler's Em is the closest person to a central protagonist with whom the film has a  nuanced, accessible emotional throughline. When everyone else in the house has either given up or done something off-putting to not earn anyone else's trust, it's the proactive Em who earns our sympathy from start to finish.

To be honest, the filmmaking isn't always polished. Calling cards include wobbly camerawork, poor lighting in muddy exterior shots, too many rough cut-to-black transitions, and actors often speaking without their lips moving. Being rough around the edges, though, is part of the film's impressively thrifty appeal and sense of reality (or, doubling of realities). It's smart without underestimating the audience's intelligence, and it will be too knotty and convoluted to retrace every step and wrap your brain around in one sitting, but this is a hypnotic puzzle impossible to give up on and even more gratifying if the viewer goes in knowing very little beyond the setup. Proving that limited resources does not mean limited invention, "Coherence" is a rule-breaking experiment gone right. It achieves more than some movies with overpaid stars and inconceivable nine-figure budgets. That's just unheard-of, right?

Grade: A -