1BR (retitled Apartment 1BR in the UK) was far and away the best film I saw at Grimmfest last year, and for a low-budget feature directorial debut, it’s quite remarkable. It’s most certainly flawed, but director David Marmor’s pure cinematic ambition is as intoxicating on-screen as the cult indoctrination that the film depicts. The creepy L.A. milieu that 1BR inhabits just adds to the paranoia for the viewer.
Nicole Brydon Bloom plays Sarah who is a young millennial woman who, like many past, present and future newcomers, decides to move to L.A. to start anew after her mother dies from cancer. Her relationship with her father is fraught. She finds one of those always creepy apartment complexes that litter the Los Angeles area; initially, it feels like some alternative-universe version of Under The Silver Lake. The apartment complex seems welcoming at first, and with the hot young man down a few doors down, she befriends an ageing one-time scream queen. But there are strange noises in the pipes, and a leering neighbours who always wears a pair of knock-off Wayfarers with only one lens, a la Repo Man. Very quickly the true nature of this apartment complex is revealed: it’s a mini-self-help utopia that follows the writings of the long-dead L. Ron Hubbard-esque self-help guru Charles D. Ellerby (Curtis Webster) – but to reveal any more would be to ruin the film.
1BR has this great ripped-from-the-headlines feel, with its tale of abusive cults and very obvious parallels to NXIVM, Scientology or even R. Kelly’s sex cult. Given the nature of the story and its setting, you can certainly also connect it to the abuse of young women within Hollywood in general. The film also deals with the inevitable failure of most “alternative communities,” as for some reason Southern California has also always been ripe for these types of groups. Marmor has been on record as saying Synanon was the main inspiration, and there is an interrogation scene that is a direct homage to Scientology’s auditing sessions, something the filmmakers gladly admit.
Marmor keeps the audience guessing throughout the film’s 90 minutes, and subverts their expectations. A few of the twists are fairly obvious from the get-go, but those are just typical genre conventions. The film also dips dangerously into that “beloved” sub-genre of horror known as “torture porn,” but Marmor expertly uses those scenes to move the story along, which is a work of a good filmmaker. Even an incredibly nasty scene involving the cat Sarah sneaks into her apartment, which as a cat lover almost had me running for the door, is pulled off expertly. The cinematography from David Bolen is relatively flat and unflashy, which in this case actually helps the claustrophobic nature of the film. The score is incredibly atmosphere-building.
1BR remains one of the most impressive independent films of the year, with an outstanding lead performance from Nicole Brydon Bloom and a solid supporting cast, with Taylor Nichols, who people may remember from Metropolitan, being a particular standout. The film’s final moments are impressive, not only technically but also for giving what has been a fairly contained film for the previous 80 minutes a much bigger scope. That makes it all the more disturbing: it’s a real knock-out ending.