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A Haunted House

Sundance Institute

Presence (2024)

Perhaps the only filmmaker who has successfully bounced between commercial and indie careers, Steven Soderbergh returns to Sundance Film Festival, where his breakout arrived via 1989’s “sex, lies, and videotape,” with another lean and mean production perfectly appropriate for the annual Park City event. You can almost venture to guess that principal photography for “Presence” took something like 11 days; and I don’t mean this in a bad way.

Except for the final shot, the film takes place entirely within the confines of a family home. The style is experimental and invigorating. Like “Unsane,” “Presence” also employs a unique P.O.V. throughout its entire runtime. The whole thing is shot with some type of optical distortion, possibly the pincushion variety normally attained via a telephoto lens. It’s told from the perspective of a ghost, as if Mr. Soderbergh, known for doing his own cinematography, here actively plays a part. But it’s no avant-garde; rather, it’s a horror/thriller conceived by David Koepp, once one of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriters responsible for such blockbusters as “Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Spider-Man” and, well, everything.

From the start, the camera wanders from room to room and glides up and down the staircase, occasionally gazing out the windows to see the commotions below. What looks like a child’s head flashes for a split second, never to be seen again.

Though arriving unprepared, a real estate agent (Julia Fox) lucks out with buyers who are so eager they jump at making an offer without allowing for a proper inspection. But of course, we know from the outset that something is amiss.

The father, Chris (Chris Sullivan), voices concerns about whether the move is too soon because the daughter, Chloe (Callina Liang), is still wrestling with fresh trauma. The mother, Rebekah (Lucy Liu), however, is intent as the house is situated in the correct school district for the son, Tyler (Eddy Maday).

Though the movie never elaborates on the obvious, Chris does not appear to be the children’s biological kin – which can be read either as a win for adoptive and step- family representation on film, or perhaps that they should have just cast an Asian. Wasn’t Ms. Liu herself traumatized by having Bill Murray as her old man in “Charlie’s Angels”? At any rate, Chris appears to be a much better parent than Rebekah.

The spirit seemingly prefers Chloe’s bedroom, which one of the painters renovating the house apparently refuses to enter. Of course with her mental state, no one believes her when she finally tells the family about the paranormal activities. Most of the time, the camerawork registers as pervy and voyeuristic, though the invisible man/woman/child also likes to rearrange things or trash the room to make its presence known. A twist awaits, but Mr. Koepp drops quite a few breadcrumbs to lead us there.

Whatever optical illusion or camera trick is used, it appears to make the house much larger than it actually is. The film is devoid of closeups; and this, along with having an invisible protagonist, presents storytelling challenges. Thankfully, the relatively unknown Ms. Liang keeps us engaged even if her trauma seemingly vanishes almost as soon as Tyler invites a pal (West Mulholland) over.

With “Presence,” Mr. Soderbergh’s high batting average remains unchanged. The primary audience for this is likely going to be his longtime devotees, though with proper marketing it will certainly appeal to genre fans. With that having been said, there was a stream of walkouts at its Sundance premiere. Perhaps even a perennially interesting and innovative filmmaker can’t always manage to command attention with his minor outings.


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