In the last decade, improvisation has become a prominent feature of independent filmmaking. “Mumblecore” features led the way in this regard, spewing a barrage of films where this subculture’s do-it-yourself filmmakers and actors would work out a basic plotline and improvise the content of the scenes on the fly. Worm offers an intriguing example of this indie-improvisation approach crossing over to genre cinema – and the finished film shows the benefits and the drawbacks of mixing this approach with genre elements.
Worm takes place in a world where people have lost the ability to dream. The new craze is “Fantasites,” a worm that you insert your ear and induces dreams when it dissolves its way into your brain. Charles (John Ferguson), an apartment handyman, schemes to get some of his own as an escape from his humdrum life. He hopes to make himself more impressive to June (Jes Mercer), the girlfriend of Reed (Shane O’Brien), the jerky news executive who lives upstairs from Charles. At first, he’s emboldened by the new dreams he has, actually striking up a friendship with June – but when Fantasites are suddenly outlawed for their side effects, Charles finds life leading him down a darker path.
Worm is not lacking for ideas or visual savvy. Director/co-writer Doug Mallette packs the storyline with interesting concepts and all sorts of novel formal experiments, like having t.v. broadcasts in the background of the story that satirize how news and reality television would deal with a craze like Fantasites. The latter half of the story takes some surprising turns and isn’t afraid to thrust its characters into some bleak, brutal territory. Rob Bennett’s ‘scope-format cinematography is fluid and skillfully composed and Mallette maintains a solid pace with the help of editor Ryan Kendrick.
That said, Worm is seriously injured by the lack of a concrete screenplay to harness all its ideas. Tonally, the film is all over the map: it starts with a goofball comedy tone for its first half-hour then shifts into some domestic drama material between the three leads before the final third goes all for a barbed drug addiction allegory approach. Simply put, the early comedy stuff is silly to the point of becoming grating – in fact, it makes the lead character annoying instead of sympathetic – and the darker material of the second half, though attention-getting, never quite feels like it has earned the right to be so heavy because the story’s set-up is so light.
The actors roll with the tonal shifts surprisingly well but the lack of crafted dialogue that a script would provide often leaves them sputtering for something to say in scenes of high emotion. That said, they connect better with the dramatic material than they do with the amateurish, student film-style comedic beats of the first half-hour. However, the motivations for the characters aren’t always clear, particularly June’s: it often feels like the plot is determining the characterizations rather than these two elements working together organically.
In short, Worm is the work of filmmakers who show a nice amount of raw talent and visual savvy. That said, Mallette and his collaborators need to invest in a screenplay if they’re going to progress beyond the micro-budget arena.