As you know, we at TBB love FILM, and when we can, we make full use of our press passes to see some of the more mainstream movies on offer at film festivals.

Marjorie Prime is a surprising, low-key, speculative family drama, based (again surprisingly) on Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated 2015 play of the same name. It ultimately explores the nature of memory, leading to the subtle, darkly comic question of once memories are all stored up, where do they go, or do they take on a life of their own…?

In a completely recognisable, very near-future, Primes are artificially intelligent learning holograms, employed by the grieving, or their relatives, to help them through varying types of loss – particularly grief and dementia. The griever can choose the likeness of a deceased loved one based on a particular era of their life in terms of looks. As they talk to the Primes, the A.I. remembers and learns, becoming more life-like in their responses and expressions as time progresses.

We meet the early middle-aged Walter Prime (a distinguished, gaunt John Hamm (Mad Men, 2007-15), as he ‘visits’ with his 86-year-old widow Marjorie (a gorgeously girlish Lois Smith – True Blood, 2008-14, Fried Green Tomatoes, 1991) who is slowly succumbing to dementia, but who requests for him to repeatedly tell her stories from their past. One of her carers – her son-in-law, the previously disliked/ now favourable Jon (Tim Robbins, The Shawshank Redemption, 1994), is a champion of the technology. Conversely, the other, his wife Tess (an unusually waspish Geena Davies, The Long Kiss Goodnight, 1996 Thelma & Louise, 1991) distrusts it – a symptom of her thinly veiled jealousy over Marjorie’s willingness to talk to Walter Prime for hours, and obey him more easily than anyone else.

As we get to know them, an unexpected family secret slowly begins to surface. It caused the broken mother-daughter relationship that Tess is left unable to deal with, despite her proximity to an almost newly ‘innocent’ Marjorie. What the truth is, is left to you, as the trouble with memories becomes increasingly clear – they are completely subjective and vulnerable!
Just as you feel you are getting a handle on the narrative, writer-director Michael Almereyda switches the main focus / protagonist, rather suddenly. As you’re playing catch up, he switches up again, yet it doesn’t feel like an ensemble piece. It still feels intensely personal, and once the various narrative strands come together, they begin to make a kind of sense about the nature of memory. It’s a powerful statement.

The cast are excellent and do a truly first-rate job in roles that you might not have seen them inhabit before. That there are no African-Americans in speaking roles irked, but could have been a deliberate observation on the country club social circle the family move in, and could be forgiven in a small cast like this. There is a Latina carer Julie (Stephanie Andujar – Orange is the New Black, 2014), who seems to have a warm relationship with Marjorie, and whose employment is rendered precarious in the face of Tess’s disquiet.

As with all the best, thought-provoking science fiction, the story is accompanied by a wonderfully haunting score by Mica Levi. The cinematography from Sean Williams is gorgeous. He frames the changing seasons of America’s coastal states – sun, downpour, snow, meaningfully, as well as using poetic reflections in the turbulence of the sea beyond the massive picture window.

In the wake of its Sundance premiere, FilmRise acquired U.S. distribution rights, and plans a mid-2017 theatrical release with an awards-season push for its cast, particularly the most deserving Smith, also 86. It will also will be available on Amazon Prime Video this year as part of Amazon Video Direct’s Film Festival Stars programme.