The darkened screen is almost pitch black before we can begin to discern shapes in the distance. First it’s wooden stakes in the ground at what looks to be a trailhead of sorts. Next it’s a mountain in the distance. Finally we come to a door that swings open as though we’ve been placed inside a videogame merging the puzzle mechanics of Myst with the brooding aesthetic of Hellraiser only to continue moving forward towards a bald figure with back turned—unmoving and foreboding with a mysterious air that can conjure nothing besides dread. And suddenly it’s over with a cut to Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) awakening from a nightmare, bundled inside a sleeping bag and laying atop a playground slide. The day commences. The images slightly fade.
Writer/director Anthony Scott Burns knows they won’t disappear, though. He’s opened Come True with this enigmatic scene devoid of context because he wants to set the mood and introduce us to the horrors he’ll be returning to again and again once Sarah finds herself in Dr. Meyer’s (Christopher Heatherington) sleep study program. We’re made to infer what the imagery means in relation to this teen’s troubled life. Is the figure a manifestation of terror and/or abuse? Is it a reminder of the reasons why she sleeps outdoors and asks friends (Tedra Rogers’ Zoe) to crash in their rooms so as not to confront her mother back home? Or is it merely a dream? The data will hopefully let Anita (Carlee Ryski) and Riff (Landon Liboiron) find an answer.
So we watch the next otherworldly vignette more carefully. We look around to see figures suspended and trapped with their heads in the walls at our sides. We witness the physical evaporate into gas or envelop us in its blackness to open our eyes to a new darkened room with a new door swinging as an unspoken invitation to peer upon that figure once more. Just like the door was different, however, so too is our vantage point. It’s as though every nightmare leads to the same destination no matter what route you take or what psychological barriers have been erected. This shadow with glowing eyes is inevitable. This empty void of despair leaving you helpless and paralyzed is forever present, waiting for you fall back asleep tomorrow.
And it’s something Burns has seen himself—or at least we assume he has after reading his director’s statement. In it he speaks of experiencing his own bout with sleep paralysis and researching the phenomenon to discover how many others have said they saw the same shadowy figure watching over them. Is it a group hallucination or the mind processing the people in the room who are unable to wake you? Probably. What Come True posits, however, is that it’s a universal fear instead. That figure is a part of what we are as human beings: an all-consuming evil that exists inside us, threatening to rise to the surface and take control. What then? What occurs once it starts steering the ship? Can we stop it?
Don’t expect the film to answer these questions. Think of it more as an entry point into their potential so you can consider answers on your own. It makes sense for Burns (and co-story creator Daniel Weissenberger) to go this route because it frees him to worry about aesthetics and atmosphere above an endgame. After all, why should he pretend this fictional world has answers if ours doesn’t? Why not let them walk around blind in the dark too so he can ratchet up the terror and blur the line between nightmare and reality? In that way we can never know to which we’re bearing witness. If everything that happens on-screen occurs from the viewpoint of a character succumbing to the shadow’s presence, nothing can be proven true.
This is both the biggest strength and greatest weakness of the whole because it ensures we never know what’s coming and frustrates by guaranteeing whatever does won’t end up possessing a pathway towards closure. The last thirty or so minutes can be confusing as a result since it’s less about disorientation and more about complication. It’d be easier to swallow if everything that came before it was similarly drawn, but the first hour or so is actually quite straightforward in its linearly dramatic progressions. The puzzle is set. The truth of what Meyer and his assistants are doing is revealed. And another unexplainable layer arrives that not even they can decode. Rather than solve it, though, Burns rips the rug out so we fall deeper into the horror.
So as long as you’re ready and willing to take that circuitous ride, Come True will be an unquestionable success. Stone builds on her psychologically distressed performance in Allure to truly embody what it’s like to be lost in your own life as you struggle to discern the difference between your waking state and that of dream. Things with Riff escalating into romance can be awkward considering the questionable origins of their relationship (stalking), but a lot of that can be explained away by the fact that pleasure and pain can both prove to be a product of hallucination. With bloodshot eyes and a proliferation of shadows from one to many causing the danger to intensify, our only hope is that someone will eventually wake up.
Using an old Tumblr meme to portray it might undercut the effectiveness of a potential awakening’s impact, but maybe I’m missing something since I didn’t know it was a meme until after my partner told me she’d seen it on the site many times throughout the years. Maybe knowing that gives the film a completely different meaning I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. I will say that both camps should probably watch Burns’ movie more than once anyway to see how things play knowing what you ultimately end up knowing. Maybe reality was never what we assumed it was. Maybe the shadows are the evidence that proves we’re all asleep right now. That uncertainty is where the work excels because it projects endless possibilities upon Burns’ indelible imagery.
Come True is playing as part of Fantasia International Film Festival’s 2020 online edition.