Portal Runner is a fun little low-budget sci-fi film. The premise is straight out of something you’d see on the Sci-Fi channel during the 90s, but I think that’s the point. Though a little rocky, it soon finds its groove in the beginning. Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Cornelia Duryee has a knack for pacing, even if the script by Tallis Moore and J.D. Henning doesn’t always allow for much to be happening. The main flaw of Portal Runner is that it often feels as if the tension is pushed to the nth degree without any real support or rationale. As a result, the character’s behaviors and reactions often seem a little overdramatic once their emotional motivations are revealed.
Moore and Henning’s script has the unique problem that while the plotting and structure of the film leave much to be desired, the dialogue has a way of sneaking up on you. To be fair, this is a movie about a fifteen-year-old boy Nolan (Sloan Morgan Siegel), traveling from alternate dimension to alternate dimension using mirrors and other reflective surfaces. Hence, realism isn’t something they should be aiming for.
But both the writers and Duryee take time to give us little moments that are both clever and grounded. Take a dinner scene where Nolan sits down with his mom Klara (Carol Roscoe), his sister Mae (Elise Eberle), and his uncle, Boon (Brian S. Lewis). Klara and Mae argue, and Mae storms off after calling her mother “mien fuhrer.” Boon tries to comfort his sister, “I don’t think she knows that’s what they used to call Hitler.” Klara begs to differ.
Duryee and her writers have crafted a fun little slice of genre fare, my issues aside. Set in 1999, the filmmakers have fun harking back to old all-or-nothing modem days. When going on the internet meant no one could call in or out, not to mention that logging onto the internet took several minutes. So Mae’s impatience as she anxiously tries to log on to talk to her boyfriend Gordo (Denny Mcauliffe) is a familiar one to anyone who grew up pre-wifi. Though she still logs on too quickly.
Portal Runner also has fun mocking the Y2K paranoia that was gripping the country at the time. Though silly, it was a real thing that captured the countries anxieties that seems almost quaint in retrospect. Uncle Boon is a prepper and firm believer in the coming downfall of civilization. For Christmas, he gives Mae and Nolan each a bag of potatoes to have for their very own.
In the middle of all this, Nolan is chased by a murderous, disfigured creature that calls to mind Mr. Boogedy. But in reality, it’s the body of Nolan’s father, Randall (Matt Shimkus). The sci-fi stuff felt like filler to me, while the family stuff was more engaging. This is mainly due to Eberle as Mae, the film’s standout.
Eberle seems game for anything. In one scene, in particular, she is on the phone with her boyfriend disguising her voice as someone else and running in place, trying to power up a portal that seems to feed off her anxiety. The scene shouldn’t work, its mechanics are shaky at best, and the script doesn’t put much effort into making us care about it. But Eberle does, and for nothing else, the scene shows just how fearless she is.
I liked how Duryee and her cameraman, Chris Mosio, gave little visual flourishes to each dimension. Some dimensions are more brightly lit, or the color is sharper, little things like that. It’s a touch that most filmmakers wouldn’t bother with. But, visually speaking, Duryee and Mosio keep most of Portal Runner visually grounded. Along with her editor Eric Firth, Duryee keeps the film lean and focused on the essentials.
I was never bored watching Portal Runner, but I was also never all that engaged either. Afterward, as I made my notes, I realized I couldn’t remember how the movie ended. But that only matters if you think the plot is of the utmost importance. I may have forgotten the ending, but I remember Eberle’s performance and the moment she discovers that Nolan knew his father, but in her dimension, he vanished when they were young. Or the way young Siegel as Nolan grows to like having a sister. I also remember Sam (Shaunyce Omar), the owner of the pawnshop who knows an easy mark when she sees one, and Uncle Boon is most certainly an easy mark.
The ending may be forgettable, but the movie as a whole is not. Duryee knows how to craft little moments, even if the bigger stuff may get unwieldy. She knows when to be grounded and when to go for broke to the point even if it isn’t working, the actors feel comfortable enough to go hog wild.
Duryee’s Portal Runner is the type of film where once you start asking questions, the whole thing starts to fall apart. It’s a movie that requires you to just go along with it and enjoy the ride. It’s a strength and a weakness.
Images courtesy of Terror Films
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