Directed by Sean Roberts | Review by Prarthana MitraBeyond the ostentatious setting of an awkward date, something sinister lurks in Sean Roberts’ sophomore cinematic project Coping Mechanism.
The events of the film unfold over a glass of wine in a quaint diner, before leading up to an uncanny and unsettling finale. In many ways, Roberts sets the viewer up for a spectacular twist, befitting a long-forgotten sci-fi trope. But it is also what makes for an uncomfortable first-time watch.
The film opens quite inauspiciously with Ben (Ryan Sobolski) and Mikaela (Bonnie Ferguson) catching up, seemingly for the first time since they drifted apart post-graduation. What starts as a harmless date, soon devolves into a lopsided and fragmented conversation that soon betrays underlying currents, which any observant viewer would be quick to pick up on. Although Ben seems quite interested in Mikaela, he also maintains an objective distance from her, as if wary of some unseen force only he perceives.
Jittery and on the edge right from the start, Ben visibly puts Mikaela off, although she maintains her composure even as Ben orders on her behalf and looks preoccupied with a crumpled note, instead of paying attention to the polite conversation she is making. A look on his face tells us it is not the laziness of a bad listener on a date with a beautiful woman or even the inexperienced awkwardness of an introvert. In fact, his nervous ticks seem to betray the signs and symptoms of someone who may have a lot riding on this one date.
The film, as it turns out in retrospect, has been setting you up with all the right cues, like Ben’s slip of the tongue on which pivots the turning point, and with ample clues for the events to follow after the date goes awry and the walls come down.
The cinematography of the film doesn’t betray the turn that the narrative takes in the fag-end of its 10-minute run. The dramatic atmosphere is undercut by matter-of-fact dialogues (at least on Mikaela’s part) while Roberts’ deliberately frill-free visuals play an instrumental role in arresting the film on the precipice of a romance that could go either way. Only later do you realize it’s a romance that was doomed from the start.
Although the chain of events situated outside/before the film’s action has an important part in shaping the narrative, it is open to myriad interpretations. The simulated reality sets up a fictitious context Ben’s confuses for reality. As he plunges deeper into his psychosis, the film becomes a tragedy of iterations, and Ben’s prospects of ever connecting with another human being become bleaker. All cinematic evidence points towards Ben’s inability to stop what he has set into motion, developed as he is, the coping mechanism to deal with the grief and loss of Mikaela. Roberts’ film is thus an incisive portrayal of the obsessive compulsion and schizophrenia that arises from a deep chasm between reality and the inability to accept it—like Ben who cannot accept life with all its pain, loneliness and mortality.
Prarthana is presently in between odd jobs and obtaining her master’s degree in literature. She loves modern poetry and meditative cinema. Based out of Calcutta, Prarthana observes people, football, films and enjoys writing about all three. Of late, she relates to Frank Ocean’s music. Her writing experience consists of writing for various sites such as Try Cinema, The Indian Economist, Doing The Rondo, Saintbrush and various academic journals.