Dir. Darren Paul Fisher
Styles: sci-fi romantic dramedy
Others: Upstream Color, Just My Luck, Upside Down, Gattaca
Links: Frequencies - Filmbuff
What if you could measure how lucky you are? By taking a test, you could quantify just how much will simply “go your way” by chance no matter whatever actions you perform. How would that shape your world? Would you shrug and simply chalk more things up to this thing called “chance?” And if you could measure it, then by necessity you have a scale ranging from the unluckiest to the luckiest. When the unluckiest boy in the world meets the luckiest girl ever, what choice do they have but to fall in love in a film? In fact, is that even their choice? Darren Paul Fisher’s Frequencies takes place in such an alternate reality, in which luck is a measurable aspect of a person’s life, and the two ends of the spectrum curve around to meet for an attempt at romance. Frequencies is a well made film with many clever ideas, but there are unearned elements of the script that hinder it from being a totally rewarding experience.
At a school for gifted kids, Isaac-Newton Midgeley (who goes by Zak and is played as an adult by Daniel Fraser) stands out from the rest of the students. On a scale of 0-100, his luck rating is -7, making him one of the unluckiest people in the world and hopelessly in love with the girl that scored a 127, Marie-Curie Fortune (played as an adult by Eleanor Wyld). The two cannot be together for longer than a minute before calamities begin to strike: luggage falls from the skies, fire alarms sound, and things begin to shake and shatter around them. Having lived lives at the two polar opposites on the titular luck frequency range, many differences in their personalities emerged. Marie never wants for anything and everything works out in her favor, so she never develops empathy or any real emotions, instead approaching every element in life like a controlled experiment. Zak pines to be with Marie and works with his friend Theo (Owen Pugh) to find a way to negate their incompatible frequencies.
Fisher’s (who is here writer, director, and producer) film has a lot of good things going for it before it fully succumbs to some lazy narrative shorthand. All of the actors shine in their roles, particularly the child and teen versions of the main characters; Wyld as the effortlessly effervescent yet detached woman, and Timothy Block as an exhausted government agent. There are lots of clever elements to this new world that Fisher has dreamt up — all of the children at the gifted school are inexplicably named after famous scientists and they are all hyper intelligent (in fact Zak’s mother is warned that he’ll merely be “a genius surrounded by prodigies”). This hyperintelligence works well for shortcuts in the plot, and also makes the precociousness of the children seem more reasonable. Fisher uses lots of simple and subtle aspects to showcase the two disparate worlds of Marie and Zak. For example, whenever the couple is framed in a two-shots , Marie is almost always pushed to the right (and there’s usually a gulf between them); while in single shots of each, they are both pushed to the right of the screen with tons of empty space on the left to suggest someone else should be filling it. Another clever trick that Fisher uses is different lighting depending on whose “point of view” it is: when the section of the film focuses on Marie, it’s very white light and over lit scenes, while Zak’s section is a muted yellow to show that things may not be as bright for the unlucky child. Furthermore, when Marie loses some of her luck due to Zak’s courtship, her own lighting is toned down a bit as well, removing her from the idyllic extreme she once lived in.
There are two third-act twists that Fisher attempts to pull off, one that works astoundingly well and one that simply doesn’t, bungling the landing of the film. The first finds Fisher transitioning the film from a carefully curated and mannered quirky romantic comedy with sci-fi elements into a darker meditation on some of those same sci-fi elements. Fisher pulls off the genre slide so effectively that it’s never jarring but instead comes off like a natural progression of the plot and characters. Such a turn is impressive but ultimately undercut by the second twist which never feels earned or interesting and instead force feeds the theme of the movie (even if that theme hadn’t really come up previously). Without spoiling anything, it’s an interesting concept and attempt at proving how smart someone is, but it doesn’t work and removes part of the soul of the film’s previous scenes. It also underlines a problem that exists throughout the last half of Frequencies, which is that the relationship between Zak and Marie never makes a lot of sense. The actors have chemistry, certainly, and in fact there are elements that suggest the filmmakers knew the romantic relationship was never earned — but meta-commentary doesn’t undo the creeping doubt audience members will have about this coupling.
Frequencies deals with existing in a fixed system. Can we change our luck? Our status in life? If fortune can be measured, then isn’t everything fated? Does that leave room for free will? And do we ever have a choice over who we love? It sounds quite heady (or sappy), and in fact the film works best when those aspects are pushed to the subtext or background while watching these two characters awkwardly interact and exist within this static society. It’s when the filmmaker feels the need to abandon subtlety that problems arise. For most of the film’s running time, Fisher does a great job creating an interesting new world populated by complicated characters — it’s just a shame his luck ran out at the end.