Clinical trials that use human patients can be audited by the Food and Drug Administration only after the trial has concluded. The audit can be random, but if the company conducting the test is suspected of manufacturing fraudulent data, it can be “for cause.” And that is the extent of any oversight the government can utilize. This means while the trial is active there is no one holding the company accountable. It is at least something. However, some companies have moved their trials to other countries where the FDA has no authority, can save money on the trials, and utilize larger pools of patients in a shorter time.
All of that should concern you. It certainly worries Jennifer Blanc-Biehn and Jon Huertas who devised the story for and co-star in Altered Perception. Andrew (Jon Huertas) and Laurie (Jennifer Blanc-Biehn) continuously fight about his need to feel smarter than everyone else in the room and his resentment over her former career as an escort. Kristina’s severe trust issues cause her to always be paranoid that her husband, actor Steven (Emrhys Cooper), is lying to her and cheating on her all the time. Justin (Matthew Ziff) raped Beth (Nichola Fynn), but Claudia (Aileen Burdock), Justin’s sister/ Beth’s girlfriend, isn’t sure who to believe. This takes a tremendous emotional toll on Beth who is at her breaking point.
All three couples sign up for an experimental drug which aims to increase the user’s empathy and emotional state of each other. The company is being audited, and the videotaped side effects of the couples are being examined and cross-examined, to discern if the company overstepped their bounds and allowed harm to come to the people by continuing with the trial. Side effects such as forgetting what you said, misspeaking entirely, or mishearing what the other person said, moments of confusion, and extreme sadness begin to happen to all the couples. Crosscutting between the audit and the lives of those affected by the drug, secrets will be revealed and someone needs to be held accountable.
“…an experimental drug which aims to increase the user’s empathy and emotional state of each other.”
Altered Perception starts off with a bang, as the opening credits are intercut with some of the most dramatic moments of the film, to establish the couples’ conflicts concisely and grab the audience’s attention. Director Kate Rees Davies made a bold choice with that, as it might have confused the audience but it works like gangbusters. Once those foreshadowed moments arrive, it is more powerful because the audience understands that they are the catalyst for the audit.
She effortlessly glides between each couple and ensures that no one narrative’s dramatic arc is undercut when we jump to another storyline. Less successful though is the auditing sequences. Figuring out who is the working on behalf of the auditor and who is the company employees, except the auditor, is a bit confusing. There is a doctor and based on some of the questions, I don’t think he was with the auditor, but at times he seemed to side with them, so it is unclear.
Huertas, Blanc-Biehn, and screenwriter Travis Romero do an excellent job keeping all the different plates in the air very intense. While there is some confusion during the auditing, the questions being asked, sometimes repeatedly, often accusingly, are great points. Why wasn’t the clinical trial stopped once increased aggression in more than one couple was present? Why wasn’t a proper psychological evaluation performed on any of the participants?
They also keep the relationships realistic and engaging. The way Laurie and Andrew bicker and then have crazy make-up sex suggests an unhealthy but loving relationship, in a twisted sort of way. Kristina’s apologies after each false accusation are genuine and Steven’s exasperation with, while still loving her rings true. It is the Beth/ Claudia/ Justin plot thread that is the most compelling. That Claudia can’t bring herself to imagine her brother as such a monster shows how ingrained the bonds of family can be, despite the mounting evidence. Beth feels that every time Claudia talks to Justin it is a betrayal of their relationship and she is not wrong.
“…looks at a very alarming issue with kinetic style and strong characterizations…”
The acting is a bit of a mixed bag. Huertas as the self-aggrandizing Andrew is excellent, with a speech about his insecurities, late in the film, and how it makes him impossible to deal with, even to himself is heart-wrenching. Equally him in every way is Blanc-Biehn who creates a sympathetic character out of someone that is manipulative on occasion. Whether that manipulation is the drug or the character depends on your interpretation of the movie.
Burdock and Fynn as the LBGTQ+ couple share outstanding chemistry and they feel entirely realized in and out of the relationship. As the despicable Justin, Matthew Ziff is appropriately hateable and slimy. Less impressive is Jade Tailor as the paranoid Kristina. She overacts often, and while the character is meant to be over-the-top hysterical, there is no baseline that she goes back to give the audience an idea of how acts between such bouts. This makes the character off-putting at all times. It doesn’t help that she and Cooper don’t have sparks flying between them, so them being married seems an odd match.
Altered Perception looks at a very alarming issue with kinetic style and strong characterizations. It does not quite reach its full potential due to some casting issues and confusion about who works for whom during the auditing scenes. Even considering the flaws, this is a very poignant, intense dramatic thriller that mostly works.
Altered Perception (2018) Directed by Kate Rees Davies. Written by Travis Romero. Starring Jon Huertas, Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, Emrhys Cooper, Jade Tailor, Matthew Ziff, Aileen Burdock, and Nichola Fynn.