Perception isn’t a horror movie, but its characters might’ve been better off if only they’d seen a few.
The story involves some familiar elements – a gifted person who can communicate with the spirit world and a customer who’s eager to retain her supernatural services – and, as any connoisseur of the cinematic occult can attest, these types of business arrangements rarely end well for any of the living participants. Like most variations on this setup (Ghost notwithstanding, of course), Perception strongly suggests that our dead loved ones are best left to rest in peace.
Alas, that notion is not even momentarily considered by real-estate developer Daniel (Wes Ramsey), a slick young go-getter whose firm is plotting to tear down the suburban strip mall where psychic medium-slash-single mom Nina (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) plies her paranormal trade. Daniel, it seems, is desperate for a chance to make contact with his late wife, and, coincidentally, Nina is desperate for some cash to pay for her young son’s private preschool. That makes them a perfect pair, but as they become closer with both one another and with the Great Beyond, things turn complicated and, if not quite scary, then at least pretty dark.
“Daniel is desperate for a chance to make contact with his late wife, and, coincidentally, Nina is desperate for some cash…”
With that solid, time-tested premise as its basis, Perception – the narrative feature debut of documentary director Ilana Rein – has the makings, at least for a while, of a compelling psychological/supernatural thriller. The film’s first half takes shape slowly, but there’s something tantalizingly Hitchcockian in the way that Daniel and Nina’s sessions become increasingly intimate, with him developing an ever-intensifying obsession with the woman who can supposedly “channel” his lost love.
Unfortunately, though, Perception‘s weightiest ideas and most intriguing implications gradually get left behind as the film shifts from dark romantic drama toward something much more predictable and much less involving. By the time its clunky, soap-operatic climax rolls around, Perception has largely abandoned anything that might deviate from the most basic of audience expectations. It’s as if the filmmakers were afraid to follow through on any of the narrative or subtextual threads that might elicit some surprises, instead choosing to fall back on the relative safety of formula at nearly every opportunity.
That’s especially disappointing because, while Perception‘s narrative conceit isn’t the most original, it’s easy to see how a more restrained, adult-oriented take on this material could have really made the film stand out. Rein wisely chooses to depict the encounters between Daniel and Nina almost like hypnosis sessions – mostly, we see them as flashbacks to Daniel’s memories, and there isn’t a single hokey CGI ghost effect in the entire movie – and, thus, she hints at the question of whether Nina’s gifts are real at all. Daniel is certainly willing to believe, and a more nuanced movie might have made more of his naivete and the ease with which someone like Nina would be able to capitalize on it. Perception, however, mostly plays things straight and avoids too deep a dive into its characters’ psychology, even though the movie is never more absorbing than when it feels like it might do so. This being a thriller, things, of course, aren’t exactly as they seem, but while there is indeed a significant twist, here, it’s hardly the thematically resonant shocker that it could be, and viewers can’t be faulted for reacting to it with an unimpressed shrug.
“…the movie itself is more competent than it is campy…”
Kumbhani, at least, makes for a sympathetic lead, and both she and Ramsey (a dead ringer for Saved by the Bell‘s Mark-Paul Gosselaar) are certainly easy on the eyes – though the film’s histrionic second half lays bare the stiltedness in each of their performances, and Ramsey’s overacting even further blunts the impact of an already melodramatic third act. Supporting characters range from appealing-but-underused (i.e. Vee Kumari as Nina’s similarly-gifted mother and Jro as her charmingly sarcastic gay business partner) to silly and incongruous (Max Jenkins as Daniel’s weaselly co-worker), but only Caitlin Mehner, playing Daniel’s departed lover in flashback, registers any truly memorable moments.
Much like those variable but innocuous performances, the movie itself is more competent than it is campy (a quality that might have made it more fun), never egregiously terrible but rarely better than just OK. It doesn’t take much insight – supernatural or otherwise – to conclude that Perception is something of a missed opportunity.
Perception (2018) Directed by Ilana Rein. Written by Rein and Brian Smith. Starring Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Wes Ramsey, Caitlin Mehner, Max Jenkins, J. Barrett Cooper, Vee Kumari, Jro
5 out of 10