“I don’t even know if there is an outside,” Dora (Maddie Hasson) says in a rare moment of lucidity in “Fixation,” strapped to a hospital bed and prodded by her attending physician, Dr. Melanie Zamora (Genesis Rodriguez) — or “Dr. Melanie” as she insists most of her patients will affectionately call her after they get to know her — to describe her surroundings, as she’s strapped to a bed and unable to leave. Her restraints are never loosened in Mercedes Bryce Morgan’s ferocious feature debut, but that doesn’t prevent her mind from wandering all over the place, confused as to why she’s in bondage and continually revisiting the moment where she thinks it all went wrong.
It may sound like a backhanded compliment that there are better movies ahead for Morgan than “Fixation,” but there is tremendous excitement in the feeling that the filmmaker is only getting revved up with a psychological thriller that in spite of its subject matter defiantly avoids a description of being claustrophobic, envisioning the torrent of events rushing through Dora’s mind as the largest possible canvas to explore how she’s processing trauma and wisely doing little to discern the past from the present or reality from her imagination. There may be a little too much ambiguity as to what she’s been locked up for and not enough subtlety when it comes to her captors — Dr. Melanie and Dr. Thomas Clark, her longtime psychologist who you know from the second Dora describes as “the smartest person I ever met,” and the fact he’s played by the grizzled Stephen McHattie (“Pontypool”), is bad news — but Morgan and writer William Day Frank have a grasp on the subconscious that’s truly inventive, as characters will wander in and out of Dora’s mind, straying far from their original context and thrown into situations that bear some semblance to reality but not quite.
“Fixation” ultimately becomes a mystery about who to trust, watching as Dora gradually pieces together that person may only be herself, but she clings onto a relationship with her brother Griffin (Atticus Mitchell) that clearly carries as much pain as it does love and as she reinterrogates events that they went through growing up together, she starts to question how they might’ve been reframed for her in therapy by Dr. Clark. Hasson is committed to the mania that inevitably explodes from all that’s stirring inside Dora, yet much of what she’s experiencing imaginatively emerges in the environments so carefully crafted by production designer Lucas Gentilcore and set designer April Forward where the nostalgic is disrupted by the surreal in her memories. It’s surely no accident that she comes to resemble Alice from “Alice in Wonderland” after exchanging her straughtjacket for a dress as she descends into a rabbit hole of dangerous thoughts and dark impulses to the point where it’s genuinely intriguing if she can find her way back. You can certainly understand why Dora would like to leave, but the funhouse mirror effect that Morgan and crew are able to pull off where each reflection looks more warped to the next is enough to make one actually want to stick around.
“Fixation” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival on September 11th at 9:25 pm at the Scotiabank.