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There’s something quite magical about a previously unknown film exceeding expectations. Not meeting them, mind you: that happens quite frequently. No, I’m talking about that special thrill that can only happen when you expect a movie to go through the motions only to discover that it’s actually a smarter, scrappier little bastard than you thought. The best example I can think of in this regard is Hobo with a Shotgun (2011): while I wasn’t expecting anything more than a stupid, gory attempt to set up shop in Troma-land, I fell completely in love with the film after one viewing, finding it to be the freshest, funniest, funkiest pile of gold-plated junk I’d seen in a blue moon. While Dennis Iliadis’ +1 (Plus One) doesn’t fire me up in the same way that Hobo did, it’s a massively impressive effort: I went in expecting one of those moronic “megaparty” films “with a twist,” but I was actually greeted with something that aspires a little closer to Timecrimes (2007) than Project X (2012). It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. but it is interesting, quick-paced, intelligent and just tricky enough to inspire a repeat viewing. Looks like I better keep my eye on this Iliadis dude: us Greeks can be a tricky lot!

In many ways, +1 is two separate films, joined at the hip: a megaparty, youth-getting-crazy-and-finding-love movie and a batshit crazy horror story about a strange meteor and murderous doppelgängers. If it sounds like those halves make ill-fitting companions, you’re right: there’s absolutely no way this should work (it even looks sketchy on paper). For whatever reason, however, it ends up working perfectly: my biggest issues with the film tend to be the ultra-cliched party scenes but I have issues with those kinds of films/scenes whenever I see them (without a doubt, The Kitchen (2012) had one of the worst “parties” I’ve ever seen in a film). The doppelgänger aspect, however, is handled with some real wit and nerve, albeit in a slightly confusing manner. Since Timecrimes and Primer (2004) were both complete head-scratchers, however, I’m willing to grant that the subjects of time travel and alternate versions of ourselves may be just a little more complex than the average multiplex feature can handle, at least beyond the Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) level.

The film begins with a nice little bit of foreshadowing, as our hero, David (Rhys Wakefield, kind of a poor-man’s James Van der Beek), makes a bit of a mistake after his girlfriend’s fencing match. You see, he goes to kiss who he thinks is Jill (Ashley Hinshaw) but ends up kissing a girl who’s her spitting image…but definitely not her. Jill sees this and before David knows it, he’s been unfriended on Facebook: shit just got serious, folks! Looking to drown his sorrows, David lets his shithead friend, Teddy (Logan Miller), drag him to one of those epic college keggers that seem to involve 5000 people and always get shut-down by the cops. Who should be at the party, of course, but Jill, who’s attending with her new gentleman friend, Steve (Peter Zimmerman)? As expected, this bums David way the hell out: how’s a guy supposed to kick back when his ex is sucking face with some jerk? Hoping to succeed where generations of movie heroes have failed, David moves through and around the party, hoping to get Jill alone so that he can win her back. Teddy, in the meantime, has his eyes set on Melanie (Natalie Hall): she’s out of his luck, of course, but how’s a guy gonna know if doesn’t try? Meanwhile, the party’s host, Angad (Rohan Kymal, mugging as if the bus will explode if he doesn’t go big at every opportunity), has his own problems, since the party (complete with outdoor stage, strippers and live music) keeps getting bigger and bigger. Stay cool and have a great summer, guys!

And then, just when it seems that all hope is lost (for us, not our heroes: they always do okay), the film decides to drop the other show: a meteor plummets from the heavens to earth, exploding into brilliant, blue electrical energy when it hits. The energy jolts into a nearby powerline, which causes a temporary power outage. David is looking in a mirror when the power cuts: when it comes back on, he’s looking one way but his reflection is looking the other way. The game, as they say, is on.

From this point on, +1 manages to graft both halves of the film together and, a few ugly stitches notwithstanding, it’s a pretty seamless job. As David, Teddy and their friend, Allison (Suzanne McCloskey), quickly figure out, there now appears to be two of everyone. As a further twist, however, the doubles don’t seem to be aware of each other (yet), as they’re on slightly different timelines than the “real people”: the doppelgängers replay incidents that happened shortly beforehand, so they’re (technically) always a little behind the real partygoers. When the real party moves outside, however, and the doppelgängers take over the house, it becomes pretty clear that these parallel lines are moving rapidly towards a collision point. Ever the opportunist, David sees a “surefire” way to get back Jill: if he can only get to her doppelgänger, David can use information from his last conversation with the “real” Jill to re-romance the double. Will he be able to get back his “normal” life by doing something decidedly strange? How different is “real” Jill from “fake” Jill? For that matter, how different is “real” David from “fake” David? As the “time-difference” between the real people and their doppelgängers gets smaller and smaller, a new wrinkle is revealed: rough-neck drug-dealer Kyle (Adam David Thompson) gets shot in the head by his own double. With this incident comes a terrifying new question: what, exactly, will happen when the doppelgängers “catch up” to the real people?

While +1 is a little rough out of the gate (despite the clever opening situation), it quickly settles into quite the tense, action-packed little marvel. As mentioned earlier, the megaparty stuff is all pretty stupid and shallow, although I’m definitely not the audience for that kind of film. “Woo-girls” run around in Native American headdresses, chugging red cups. A bunch of broish dudes eat sushi off a naked Japanese woman before offending her and receiving some righteous jump kicks as punishment (really). A bunch of the idiots decide to play tennis, indoors, with a flaming tennis ball. Yes, a flaming fucking tennis ball. When the flames set a curtain on fire, do they panic? Naw, brah: they just wait for the sprinklers to kick on and dance in the water! Yeah…it’s unrepentantly dumb and, combined with some idiocy over which band gets to play and the bizarre strip show outside, the whole thing feels sort of like a dinner-theater version of Coachella.

Stick with it, however, and that most magical of things happens: it actually bears fruit. While much of the banality from the party scenes is just that, many other elements get reworked and filtered back through a new lens once the doppelgängers enter the picture. Certain scenes that formerly made no sense, on their own, are now seen in the bigger mosaic of the film and it’s a pretty smart move. There’s also no shortage of genuine tension in the film, including an absolutely brilliant scene where Allison’s doppelganger is being followed by a bitchy rival, who is being pursued by the real Allison. The three form a pretty great conga line and it’s edge-of-the-seat time as we realize that any look over a shoulder blows the whole thing to hell. Very smart. There are also some fantastically edgy moments as the real people wait, terrified, as the timelines get closer and closer together: since the audience has no idea how this technically works, we’re in the exact same boat as the party-goers, sort of a flip on that whole “we become the victim” idea in slashers.

There’s so much that genuinely works in +1 that I almost feel bad for the stuff that doesn’t, although none of it irreparably harms the film. The special effects (the “alien fire” and flaming tennis ball) are astoundingly awful: worse than direct-to-video awful, if I can be so bold. The acting tends to range from decent to kinda awful, although I also got the feeling that many of these actors were of the “I need a bunch of folks for a crowd-scene” variety. The principals do pretty good, for the most part, with Logan Miller being particularly impressive: I started the movie absolutely hating the loathsome, douchebag character of Teddy but he managed to (eventually) win me over. Similarly, I felt that Rohan Kymal’s Angad was always too over-the-top, although even he had several nicely nuanced scenes, particularly once the shit really hits the fan.

Director Iliadis’ previous claim to fame was the remake of The Last House on the Left (2009), which I haven’t seen, but I enjoyed +1 enough to be curious about that one, as well. I don’t like everything he does here but there’s enough wild invention to glide me over the rougher aspects. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimaire Jr. was the guy responsible for shooting Francis Ford Coppola’s last three films — Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009) and Twixt (2011) — as well as P.T. Anderson’s The Master (2012). While there’s nothing overly showy about the cinematography, the shots are always nicely composed and he has a way with depth of field that leads to some very interesting reveals. At the very least, the film has a much richer, deeper look than one would expect from this type of “party hardy” environment.

While +1 isn’t perfect, it’s a damn sight more interesting than many more “prestigious” films that I’ve seen over the past six months or so. At one point, the “real” characters get into a discussion about what makes the doppelgängers different from their “originals.” As one person points out, the doppelgängers can’t be the same, technically, since they’ve had different experiences than the originals have (especially towards the end, when things get bad). If you think really, really hard, it’s a pretty mind-blowing concept, especially within the framework of the story: does your mirror image have a life of its own on the other side of the glass? Where does it go when you walk away? What makes a being intelligent…and what makes it unique? These are the kinds of questions I might expect from a highfalutin sci-fi slow-burner or something by Aronofsky. When I can get things like this in a movie that also features flaming indoor tennis, I consider myself a mighty lucky man, indeed.