Fantasia International Film Festival runs August 20th through September 2nd as a completely online event. We’re used to attending in person in beautiful Montreal, Canada, but we’re excited to cover this fantastic festival virtually too. Our coverage of this year’s Fantasia Festival continues with our review of Anthony Scott Burns’ Come True.
There may only be seven basic story plots in fiction and film, but there is a myriad of ways in which to tell them. While some stories unfold in a straight line, clear to viewers paying even the slightest attention, others require something more from audiences — attention, yes, but also a willingness to be led on an unexpected and atypical journey. Come True belongs in the latter camp as it takes what feels like a straightforward horror premise and instead delivers something far more ambitious, challenging, and exciting.
Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) is a young woman in distress. On the outs with her mother over some unspecified conflict, she spends her nights sleeping at a friend’s house or hidden away somewhere on the street. She’s also suffering from nightmares, and when an opportunity arrives addressing both issues she jumps at the chance. A small sleep study welcomes her in, and while they don’t reveal what it is exactly they’re studying, they do offer Sarah a safe, warm bed for the night. What she doesn’t know is that they’re testing a device that let’s them see a rough and fuzzy picture of what she’s dreaming — and it doesn’t portend well for any of them.
The past few years have seen several horror films on the subject of sleep paralysis — Dead Awake (2016), Slumber (2017), Mara (2018) — with the second common element between them being that they’re pretty terrible. Part of the issue has been a dull, traditional approach to the topic, but the same can’t be said for writer/director Anthony Scott Burns’ Come True. The film wisely keeps the sleep paralysis angle to the periphery for much of the running time and instead finds conflict, drama, and wonder elsewhere in Sarah’s journey. Once it does turn its attention back towards the sleep ailment it’s with fascinating ideas and observations. It’s as captivating as it is confusing at times, and it risks failing to satisfy with its tricky but daring denouement, but at least Come True is never dull.
Sarah’s situation quickly endears her to viewers, and Burns punctuates her drama with brief, nightmarish visuals teasing something just beyond our understanding. This isn’t a film for jump-scare fans as it instead lets its unsettling imagery and dark wonders unfold far more methodically. The camera gives viewers a POV into Sarah’s dreams and moves us forward, away from safety and towards uncertainty. A figure awaits, but who or what it is sits continually outside our reach.
Burns acts as his own cinematographer and, as he did with his phenomenal “Father’s Day” segment in 2016’s Holidays, he effortlessly creates an atmosphere of dreamy movement and intent. There are moments that thrill through aggression and terror, but the bulk of this journey is captured with a deceptive lack of focus. Don’t be fooled, though, as Burns knows exactly what he’s doing right up through an ending guaranteed to absolutely delight some genre fans while frustrating others. There’s a Prince of Darkness (1987) vibe to some of it, so it’s safe to say I land squarely with the delighted. The evocative synth score by Pilot Priest (Burns again!) and Electric Youth adds to the feeling of being pulled through an atmosphere thick with precarious reality.
While many of the film’s threads are left intentionally vague and uncertain, only one risks being disturbing beyond the confines of the movie itself. Stone herself is in her twenties, but the character she’s playing is never given a specific age (unless I missed it, which is more than possible). The assumption, though, from the class we see her in to her and her friend living at home, is that she’s a teenager still in high school — which makes a mildly graphic sex scene she’s a part of more than a little off-putting. The only argument that she’s older is in the assumption that a sleep study wouldn’t allow a minor to participate. It’s not a deal-breaker, but some clarity here would have been beneficial.
Come True might not work in its entirety for some viewers, but it would be irresponsible to ignore its ambition and artistry in service of such a meticulous vision. It’s a film that sits with you, floating around in your brain for days and weeks after watching it, and that’s far too rare of a joy to pass by. Those on its wavelength are in for an exhilarating, perplexing, and sublime journey that’s as fresh in its execution as it is in its narrative. If the rest of you find yourself sleeping through it instead, well, good luck with that.
Follow our coverage of Fantasia 2020 here.