MOVIE REVIEW: “Reparation”

(Image: showbizchicago.com)

“REPARATION” — 4 STARS

Dissociative amnesia is memory loss caused by psychological stress and exists as a branch on the tree of other dissociative disorders dealing with identity and personality. As a plot device in films, amnesia can span across the cute and silly like “Finding Dory” and “50 First Dates, the action that spurs the Jason Bourne franchise, and twist towards the suspenseful in Hitchcock’s twin-bill of “Marnie” and “Spellbound.” The real thing, however, is no joke, and most films on dissociative amnesia skew too far towards the fantastical for dramatic purposes.

“Reparation,” the new independent feature film and debut work of filmmaker Kyle Ham, understands the fantastical pitfall of amnesia and offers its own unique visualization of the condition. True to form, the film is still a film, seeking to create fulfillment and entertainment from a dark psychological malady. To its enormous credit, though, “Reparation” chose its narrative mechanisms and anchors them in the sobering truths and fascinating difficulties that face regular people, not Pixar fish, Adam Sandler man-children, or invincible superspies.

That effect is readily apparent when “Reparation” begins at its end with a young girl slamming on a pick-up truck horn outside a hospital while a man in the passenger side is bleeding from a gunshot wound to the face. That girl is Charlotte Stevens (newcomer Dale Dye Thomas) and the injured man is her beloved father Bob Stevens, played by TV actor Marc Menchaca of “Homeland” and “Generation Kill.” Charlotte narrates on accidents of fate that have beset her and her father. She has witnessed more than we have at this point, which immediately draws us to wonder how and why we will get to this point later.

Dialing back a decade earlier, Bob was a troubled man discharged from the U.S. Air Force. He carries a three-year gap of blocked-out memories. Thrown back into society by the military hospital system, Bob has trouble verbalizing thoughts and maintaining attention. Certain noises and images trigger painful blackouts and his constant confusion overwhelms him to the point where he carries conversations out loud to an unnamed pre-teen boy (debuting young actor Brody Behr) with a penchant for checkers that only he can see.

A gypsy-ish organic product vendor in California named Lucy (Virginia Newcomb of “Peacock” and “Three Fingers”) takes a liking to Bob, sees his broken good heart, and asks no questions of his past. Her goal becomes to help him forge a new future. Charlotte becomes the treasure of their future as we reach the present day with Bob and his family cultivating fresh roots in his old hometown in rural Putnam County, Indiana near Greencastle. The amnesia remains, but the blackouts have subsided and the young figment of his conscience has not appeared in years.

The placid present is startled by the arrival of Jerome Keller (“Castle” series regular Jon Huertas), a man who claims to be Bob’s best friend from their Air Force days. The bearded fellow vet feels wronged by a past Bob doesn’t remember. He seeks equal doses of reconnection and the titular reparation while spewing crass idioms and empty threats. Jerome’s side of the recollections slowly awaken dormant imagery and tales into Bob’s past as a military policeman working under the menacing control of his commanding officer, Colonel Atreus (prolific Chicago stage and screen actor Keith Szarabajka of “Argo” and “The Dark Knight”).

Here’s the curveball kicker. Those nightmaric flashes come to Charlotte and not her father. Yet again, something is going to bring us back to that horn-blaring truck. More importantly, something even more ominous happened further back in time that caused the dissociative amnesia in the first place. “Reparation” reconstructs the leaden, fractured memories that await while hiding an absolute hammer in the denouement that can shatter any reconstructed steel.

“Reparation” creates a character study that stands as a starkly different and grounded tangent of post-traumatic stress disorder with a touch of the surreal. There is plausible room to question Charlotte’s mysterious “ability” (even with a minor scientific foothold in residual trauma) that may take some discerning audiences out of the suspension of disbelief. However, the dedicated performances lift up the whole. The two first-time child actors, Dale Dye Thomas and Brody Behr, are wonderful notes of energy. Virginia Newcomb is an absolute lioness as the protective maternal voice challenging deceptions.

The co-headliner Jon Huertas elevates his role beyond a stock vengeful stalker with his own scars and flawed motivations. The villain you love to hate becomes Keith Szarabajka, relishing every line with acid and gravel. The champion above all is Marc Menchaca as the lead. Those who will say “all he has to do is stand around and look confused” will sorely miss the powerful nuances underneath that make the struggle convincing. Menchaca channels the internal strife of a character grasping in desperation to regain his spirit and soul in an impressive display.

Kyle Ham co-adapted “Reparation” from theater professor Steve Timm’s own stage play. The micro-budgeted film, shot at 34 locations in a whirlwind 24 days, was a hometown labor of love from the cradle of DePauw University in Greencastle where Timm chairs and Ham graduated. “Reparation” has garnered nearly a dozen festival awards, including top feature wins in Santa Fe, Sedona, and Austin, earning every wreath. Detailed creative writing merges with the zealous and calculated direction to bring the most out of the commitment appearing on-screen. Keep an eye on the name Kyle Ham. You might just hear his name spoken at Sundance in the coming years.

Building domestic suspense in poignant fashion and shifting between three eras, “Reparation” examines potent human flaws and plants them in small-town America with real-life consequences. This film doesn’t need a grandiose battlefield saga of hidden heroism to be the catalyst. This isn’t “American Sniper” and glossy hero worship. “Reparation” welcomes more intimate and jagged complications with authentic down-home realism and charm.

LESSON #1: THE EFFECTS OF DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA — Ham and company effectively put the POV of dissociative amnesia on the audience when the flickering visions and stinging sounds that afflict Bob at inopportune moments are channeled to hit you in your seats visually and audibly. You feel the triggers and the rushes right there with him. At the same time, one person’s imbalance is another person’s attuned perception.

LESSON #2: THE INABILITY TO MOVE ON — Even though Bob has carved out a nice family life for himself and Lucy has always accepted him with questioning his past, the dreams affecting his daughter and the memories stirred by Jerome make his past, even an unremembered one, inescapable. Until he knows and can come to peace with his possibly disgraceful past, closure and redemption will not come.

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