In the empty, rock-strewn landscape of the New Mexico desert, a meteorite pierces through the cloudy sky. It hits the ground in billows of dust. Just where it has made impact, a treacly black ooze spreads over an abandoned magazine, absorbing its imagery. On the front cover, a picture of a famous adult entertainer, Julianna (Lauren Ashley Carter). Her hair is in long curls; she wears a negligé.
Moments later, a creature appears in the distance, clambering awkwardly. It is not sure what to do with its limbs but gradually steps forward and starts walking. As it approaches, it starts to resemble Julianna. It is an imitation of the woman on the magazine cover, but it not quite human – yet. Lost in the desert, it scavenges for food, walking miles barefoot, until it finds shelter with kindly hosts Saghi (Neimah Djourabchi) and Khahar (Sanam Erfani).
Saghi and Khahar are brother and sister. They too seem lost in the New Mexico landscape, exiles from the Iran of their childhood. Their house however is a loving home, and with their help, the Imitation girl begins to become human. Her transformation is rapid, less a matter of painstaking learning but rather a process of osmosis. She is so open to discovery, warm-hearted. On her first day with Saghi and Khahar, she copies words she hears them speak, in English and Farsi. Soon, she converses with them, with increasing fluency, in both languages. In this home of great kindness, Saghi and the imitation girl fall in love. He reads her poems by the great Persian poet Hafez, of delight and love.
Meanwhile in a cold wintry New York, the original of the copy, the real Julianna, is increasingly worn out. She is materially successful, her colleagues and friend are kind. She knows though she is in the wrong life. And her friends, though mostly kind, have lives that are probably quite wrong for her – she lets them steer her where perhaps she should not be. She feels destined for something else, and wonders what that might be. Sometimes when she looks in the mirror, she sees herself, but senses that the person looking back is not her. That person looking back at her is full of wide-eyed innocence and curiosity. Her own eyes are sad. From time to time, Julianna and her imitation look at each other through their mirrors.
Who do you turn to, if you get lost in life? And if you are on Earth but come from somewhere else, who do you turn to, if you are lost in this world? Julianna and the imitation girl are destined to find each other – their encounters in the mirror are not enough.
This is a self-assured first feature for writer/director Natasha Kermani. The story includes playful glances at some other films in the same register – a certain innocence you can see in the eyes of other fictional aliens: David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Scarlett Johannson in Under The Skin, or Joe Morton in Brother from Another Planet. There are also repeated visual references – that treacly dark ooze the Imitation girl is created from is strongly reminiscent of the oily, black, slick substance engulfing the hapless men in Under the Skin.
It’s a great cast. Lauren Ashley Carter convincingly brings both characters to life. Julianna’s quest for something she cannot yet grasp and Imitation’s optimistic construction of a new persona are both portrayed with great sensitivity. Neimah Djourabchi and Sanam Erfani shine as the solitary exiles with generous hearts. Catherine Mary Steward and Lewis Black provide effective cameos as people who are older but perhaps do not know better.
Travis Tips’ cinematography is distinctive and visually confident. His filming of the semi-arid New Mexico landscape is at times achingly beautiful; the deep focus is pin-sharp to infinity; the eye lingers, exploring the still frame. There is a continued visual pleasure in the film, a curiosity – the camera looks at the world, at people’s faces, with the same curiosity as Julianna’s alter ego. This is an enjoyable first film.
Director & Writer: Natasha Kermani
Cinematography: Travis Tips
Cast: Lauren Ashley Carter, Neimah Djourabchi, Sanam Erfani, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Adam David Thomson, Catherine Mary Stewart, Lewis Black
First published on Screenwords, September 2017