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A Poignant Sci-fi Statement About Life And Mortality

History repeats itself in this ingenious but surprisingly heartfelt sci-fi, which takes the premise of Groundhog Day and fashions from it a poignant statement about life and mortality. Refreshingly for the genre, it focuses on a middle-aged woman — a scientist-slash-physicist, even — whose 55th birthday and final breath will occur within the same week. But though there is an element of resistance to the latter, Omni Loop is unusual in that it isn’t simply about breaking the cycle; Bernardo Britto’s film is about facing the inevitable, gently phasing out the genre elements to reach an understated but emotional climax.

Zoya Lowe, when we first meet her, is a little girl who, a voiceover tells us, is predicted “to do incredible things one day” and “change the world”. The next time we see her, Zoya is now played by Mary-Louise Parker and things are not so positive: X-rays show a black hole growing between her longs, and the doctors are speculating that she has “maybe another week”. Zoya’s family make their best efforts for her, taking her to the beach and holding a surprise birthday party, while Zoya keeps to her own beat, making plans to finish up her latest and last science book and visiting her mother in old folks’ home.

Except Zoya’s last week is far from normal; as she tells a stranger while visiting her mother, “Do you wanna hear a secret? I’ve done this before.” It transpires that, at a certain point in the timeline, just after the birthday party, she gets a nosebleed. At which point she takes a pill, blacks out, and goes back a week.

The pills will remain a mystery for the time being, but swing into focus when Zoya meets another stranger at the retirement home. This is Paula Campos (Ayo Edebiri), a young scientist visiting her grandmother. Paula is studying time (“How it works, how it moves”) and is fully aware of Zoya, her reputation, and all her published work on quantum mechanics. Zoya sees Paula as her only hope, and together they embark on a science project that, for the bemused Paula, must start again from scratch every week, despite all the advances they make.

As might seem obvious from the outset, science itself is something of a MacGuffin here, as is evident when Paula suggests they take Zoya’s pills to be examined by The Nanoscopic Man, an experimental guinea pig who was shrunk to invisibility and has been left in a laboratory drawer to get smaller ever since.

While he examines the provenance of the pills, Zoya begins to explore her past and starts wondering where the wheels came off in her once-glittering career. Admittedly, she doesn’t have to wonder about that for very long, as her grouchy old professor turns up unexpectedly to admonish her about it, telling her, “You were entitled, you were lazy, you were impatient.”

But was she really any of these things? Zoya is ready to believe it, wondering if she had only stayed the course — not pursued romance, not married, not had a child, and, presumably, lived no life to speak of — she would have to skills to deal with what she’s facing now. Darren Aronofsky tilted at the same windmills of what-if in his much-maligned fantasy The Fountain, but, fortunately for us, Zoya does not become a bald, yogic space Buddha in the process. Instead, the five-day cycle become the reflections of a woman dying far too young, the intense introspection and regrets about corners not turned, paths not taken.

At 107 minutes, it does slightly outstay its welcome, partly because the resetting of time becomes, inevitably, repetitive, but mostly because Paula becomes a lesser character by the end, and the pair of them have so much chemistry together that the charismatic Edebiri is sorely missed. There’s also the question of the pills; where they really came from and how they lasted more than 50 years. although this is kind of nit-picking, given the film’s magic-realist bent. Ultimately, though, it’s Parker’s grounded performance that holds the film together even through its more meandering moments and pulls off even the most formulaic of sentimental moments (which, to be fair, are few).

The title itself is a clue; though it sounds like something an insane doctor might prescribe in a David Cronenberg film, Omni Loop actually takes its name from Florida’s Metromover public transport system. Knowing that, it sort of all falls into place as a dying woman’s last thoughts: a route map of destinations past and present that flies by once she accepts that the next stop is her last.

Title: Omni Loop
Festival: SXSW (Narrative Spotlight)
Sales agent: WME
Director/screenwriter: Bernardo Britto
Cast: Mary Louise Parker, Ayo Edebiri, Hannah Pearl Utt, Chris Witaske, Carlos Jacott, Harris Yulin, Steven Maier, Eddie Cahill
Running time: 1 hr 47 min

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