Cinequest 2021 Review: “A Hard Problem” Raises Provocative Questions

Note: This review contains major spoilers you can click to unblur.

Ian Thomas (John Berchtold) isn’t feeling wanted anywhere at the start of “A Hard Problem,” overseeing his mother Mary’s remains after she passes, but unwelcome at the hospital where she breather her last breaths and barred from attending her memorial service, with his sister Lisa (Jennifer Hasty) and her partner Meg (Victoria Gabrielle Platt) urging the clergy at the church to shut the doors. He doesn’t seem threatening, but then again nothing is as it seems in the feature debut of writer/directors Kyle Hasday and Matt Stewart known as hazart, set in the not-so-distant future where technology and humanity has blended to the point of reaching near-singularity. The pain that Lisa is feeling is as old as time after her mother dies, but Ian poses an entirely new issue when it’s revealed he’s actually a clone, known as an artificial parallel, that took place of her flesh-and-blood brother years earlier and stubbornly refuses to shut down past the point of serving the family.

Intended to give comfort to Mary after the devastating loss of her son, Ian is now proving to be a major headache for Lisa and becomes the problem of Olivia (Catherine Haena Kim), tech support for Qualia, the company that makes the parallels and is tasked with getting the machine back on track. While Lisa is eager to flip the switch on Ian, Olivia’s job requires her to be more deliberate, a process that raises all kinds of thought-provoking questions as Ian has been pumped full of all the old memories necessary to provide satisfying company to Mary, but collecting all kinds of other knowledge that it would seem a shame to throw away besides the fact that the accumulation of experience appears to have a humanizing effect on him. As Olivia becomes an arbiter of what constitutes life in deciding when to end it for the droid, the film intriguingly explores whether technical issues can be addressed emotionally when humans have worked for so long to do the opposite and if anything is owed to the products we create if they should attain sentience.

There’s an airiness to the wide framing and gentle use of VFX that make the world of “A Hard Problem” convincing, and it allows the moral conundrums at the center of the indie sci-fi drama to take prominence. The film revolves around the disappearance of the original Ian’s ashes, a question that the robot version should be able to answer quickly when they aren’t programmed to lie yet Olivia is afraid to ask when his response could further express his personhood. hazart keeps things compelling by being careful not to lead audiences in any particular direction, although occasionally intrigue starts threatens to become confusion after they play coy for some time on what role Olivia will play in Ian’s life when the two are introduced near-simultaneously. Still, once Olivia and Ian’s paths intersect, the film takes off with engaging turns from Berchtold and Kim making the already consciousness-raising conversations between the two characters all the more dynamic. “A Hard Problem” may arrive at no easy answers, but it is a stimulating pleasure to take in.

“A Hard Problem” is now screening at Cinequest through March 30th.