The formula of the superhero film is easy to identify: the underdog comes to possess otherworldly powers, a dangerous new enemy appears around the same time, our hero is both excited and reluctant to take on the burden of protecting those around them, confrontation ensues, with the hero emerging as victorious. All in all, the ending is satisfying, with the balance between good and evil being restored until the cycle repeats in the following film. Throw in absurdly convincing special effects and a couple of A-listers and you’re pretty much set.
Sometimes, however, a story demands something different. Sometimes it is not possible to rely solely on the carefully calculated formula, the popular appeal. Perhaps such avenues have been utilised as much as they can be. Perhaps Marvel and DC’s monopoly on the conventional superhero genre has essentially forced other studios and independent films to forge ahead in seemingly atypical manners in order to set their story apart and bring a new layer of depth to the concept of ‘superhero’. Matthew Ninaber’s indie horror/sci-fi film Transference definitely seeks to do just that. Exhibiting a similar atmosphere and focus to those of Stephen King’s Carrie, last year’s Brightburn and the upcoming addition to the X-Men universe The New Mutants, the film opts to trade in the special effects for a character-driven tale that focuses on the protagonists’ psychological states and the struggles that come with loving someone deeply.
Viewers are thrown right into the middle of things as the piece opens with Josh (Jeremy Ninaber), a young man who has taken on the responsibility of caring for his sister Emma (Melissa Joy Boerger) who is seemingly mentally ill. Josh checks Emma into a sketchy institution, visiting her often to help keep her calm and give her more of the precious blank paint she loves to create unsettlingly dark images with. By day, Josh visits Emma, as it’s clear that they have a connection that few would truly understand. By night, he willingly participates in an underground fight-club, where, despite the mercilessly beatings he receives, comes away with only superficial wounds. The money from his winnings helps keep him afloat and pays for the medications and care Emma demands. When her condition begins to worsen Josh turns to his close friend Doug (Ethan Mitchell) to find a doctor who specialises in treating patients with ‘unique’ afflictions. Only Josh and Doug are aware of the truth behind Emma’s condition, and Josh is determined to keep it that way.
Unfortunately, Emma is not the only one suffering from unexplainable emotions, hallucinations and memories. Josh and Emma are both haunted, and their connection is soon revealed to be far more than a side-effect of their shared blood, history and trauma. In the midst of all of the frightening trials and tribulations the siblings endure, a third party is desperate to track down Emma and relieve her from Josh’s care and manipulate her abilities for sinister reasons of his own.
Transference is an intriguing piece to say the least, blending horror and science fiction, and daring to contain the enormity of the superhero genre over into an indie medium. The presence of darkness certainly plays a large role, almost becoming a character in and of itself: it is always lurking in the corners of the spaces the characters occupy, and continually encourages the conjuring of terrifying visions in their fragile minds. Secrets thrive in physical and psychological darkness, and Ninaber’s film uses that to his advantage. Whether we are acting out of love, confusion, simple curiosity or intense selfishness, Transference chooses to submerge itself within the black fathoms of these emotions, and what can happen when they are misinterpreted. As compelling as such a direction seems, the secrecy immersed into the story does not last, and we are quick to figure out what is really going on. Aside from Boerger’s admirable performance, as she manages to entwine tenderness with strength and hesitancy, overall, the actors’ don’t showcase the rawness that the story demands. If one is bold enough to twist the superhero genre and shy away from the tropes that make it so successful, the characters and the suspenseful atmosphere must make up for what is excluded. Ninaber’s film does have potential; perhaps if it was even a half an hour longer, the ending might not have been as muddled, and viewers would be able to make sense of the extent to which not only Josh and Emma are burdened and isolated from the world, but why the antagonist is the way he is.
Sibling love is as beautiful as it is messy, and the depiction of such a necessary relationship is arguably the most endearing aspect of Transference despite its shortcomings. Perhaps if Ninaber had focused more on that, than trying to weave a mysterious web into the plot, it would’ve exceeded its potential and left an impression as strange and as enticing as it was hoping to.
Transference is out on Digital now
by Kacy Hogg
Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favorite films include the Harry Potter series, Cinderella, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95