Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2008

The disillusioned, delusional superhero

'Special' fails to capitalize on its unique premise

Magnolia Pictures
Director: Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore
Screenplay: Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore
Starring: Michael Rapaport, Jack Kehler, Robert Baker, Josh Peck, Alexandra Holden and Christopher Darga
Rated R / 1 hour, 21 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Note: Minor spoilers, but nothing that is not revealed within the first half-hour. Proceed at your own risk.

Low-budget sci-fi can offer up some pretty intriguing possibilities. Perhaps more often, it offers intriguing premises that turn into less-than-intriguing results.

Special belongs in the latter category. Its basic concept - down-on-his-luck loner takes an experimental anti-depressant that he believes gives him superpowers - is rife with potential. It's clever, it has a sly satirical intent and conveys the painful loneliness at the heart of so many superhero mythologies. But as is so often the case with great ideas, the filmmakers don't know quite what to do with it.

The movie, which I first saw at last year's Sundance Film Festival, seems to be going for a sort of Primer vibe - at first, anyway. We see the effects of this new wonder drug on Les (Michael Rapaport), and are at a loss as to whether it's reality or a delusion.

Les, on the other hand, doesn't need much convincing. He embraces it right away, almost desperate to believe that yes, even someone like him can be special. He can float on air, walk through walls, read minds and even travel through time - and admirably enough, he takes it upon himself to use these powers for good.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film's set-up is how the organization and doctors who have developed this medication are cloaked in secrecy like some all-powerful syndicate. This temporarily throws all our first impressions into doubt. We might not totally believe Les really has these powers, but we're open to the possibility.

But filmmakers Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore don't let us hold on to that possibility for long.

After only a few minutes of ambiguity, the film lets us in on the secret that it's all in Les's head. When he run through a wall (a nifty special effect, that) and gets a bloody nose, it's because he ran right into the wall but didn't feel a thing. When he's hovering in mid-air, he's actually flat on the ground.

But if exploring this story ambiguously is not the filmmakers' intent, fine. In fact, I admire the attempt to instead shift the focus toward something more, something deeper about Les as a human being. The reason why he might subconsciously convince himself of this possibility of having superpowers, what that says about his need to be something greater, something special.

With its best intentions, Special wants to give us a glimpse into Les's alienation as he tries to impress his friends, catch the eye of the Girl, help people who need helping - and as a byproduct, helping the person who needs it the most, himself.

However, Haberman and Passmore keep haphazardly trying to keep us on our toes instead of focusing on Les, misleading us when we already know the answers.

Special loses one of its best elements - its curiosity - early. From then on, it's unable to consistently focus on anything else as worthwhile as some of the strangely offbeat and ambiguous early sequences. At least during those moments, we feel like we might be headed somewhere. But when the curtain falls down, Haberman and Passmore are never able to get that momentum back and the film falls empty.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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