On paper, Ingenium sounds like an interesting little mystery...
...Felicitas (Esther Maab) is a woman struggling with debilitating nightmares, relying on a questionable medication to curb her night terror episodes. Eager to change the scenery of her daily struggles, Felicitas takes off on a backpacking adventure to Thailand, but leaves her medication behind to see relief from the unwanted side effects. After meeting an unusually friendly local in Bangkok named Gai (Jan Yousagoon), Felicitas finds herself caught up in a dangerous situation that ties directly to her mental instability. It’s an intriguing premise, and a potentially important one, considering the timely need for mental health awareness and much-needed dialogue. The trouble is, I’m not entirely convinced Ingenium knows what it wants to say with its lofty subject matter.
For the first thirty or so minutes, I was really becoming invested in the film, as it began as a character journey of sorts. We’re given a little trail of breadcrumbs early on that Felicitas is a wounded soul, with an emotionally taxing day-to-day life. I already have a great affinity for the backpacking spirit and Thailand especially, so seeing her embark on a soul-searching adventure greatly resonated with me. Early scenes of Felicitas darting through the crowded streets of Bangkok reminded me of Danny Boyle’s 1999 underrated gem, The Beach. The film employs a very quick cut, distortedly edited style to signify the frenetic energy of her surroundings, but also her overstimulated thought process. I really loved this technique and it brought a unique energy to the film. However, as soon as the thriller aspect of the film kicks in, I began to lose interest. I was far more interested in who Felicitas was as a character and wanted to see her possible transformation through, but it’s as if the plot came along and demanded that exposition and confusion were more important. What is set up as a psychological horror/drama, quickly devolves into far-fetched “what is reality?” contrivances that shove any amount of characterization out of the way.
Another issue is the plot itself. By the time I was able to get a general understanding of the conflict and stakes, Ingenium enters “silly” territory by introducing shallow explanations for time travel and teleportation. The emotional weight and heft I originally found so gripping, is forgotten about to tell a preposterous conspiracy story that doesn’t make much sense to begin with. It doesn’t help that the actual mechanics supposedly supporting the plot and character motivations are told incoherently and are poorly paced.
A lot of my complaints regarding this film come down to the script and the way the story is actually arranged. Truth be told, there is a lot of talent in the film. Esther Maab is a terrific actress and is one of the few elements of the film that manages to carry the emotional weight throughout. I never, for one moment, questioned her devotion to the role and fully bought her mental and emotional dilemma. She has a way of subtlety conveying stress, anxiety and distrust that could have easily been heavy handedly performed. I only feel that her character isn’t given enough time to truly develop, because the manic, often ridiculous plot bullies her out of the way. It’s a real shame, because as I said, the first act of the film largely focuses on her coping mechanisms and emotional prison. I understand this to be a fast-paced jolt of panic and energy, (hence my comments on their use of frenetic camerawork) but there could have been a few stark, quieter moments to fill the audience in on her past a bit more or her current emotional evaluation of situations. It seems as if they want to make a grand sweeping comment regarding mental health, but I was left puzzled at what the message was, if it had any. Had the film started in an already high-octane pace, I don’t think I would be as critical, but the film goes from a character focused cruising speed to 100 in the blink of an eye.
Ingenium does have a memorable visual flair that is worth noting. The color palette is muted and near monochrome at times adding to the drab and often joyless emotional states of the characters. Also, being that German director, Steffen Hacker, has a lengthy background in digital composition, the proficient use of special effects for the teleportation is fitting and appreciated. I loved the naturalistic style of the effects, as over-the-top CGI implementation could have easily been abused here. Instead, the effects are more subtle and naturalistic, keeping things grounded, even if the plot itself isn’t.
I do think there could have been an effective way to fuse a deep character study with an exciting, conspiratorial story. There are even moments in the film that sail close to arriving there, but Ingenium is simply far too preoccupied with its often-silly story to give equal attention to the characters and commentary on mental health. Horror fans should know going in that this hardly a horror film and for me, that’s perfectly fine. What’s not particularly fine is the fact that the film doesn’t work very well as anything else either. There is definite talent behind this film and it flirts with greatness, but as a whole, this is a messy, grim and unsatisfying mystery/thriller.
Ingenium arrives on VOD July 7th from Level 33 Entertainment.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth