As humans, we are all individuals striking out in our own directions, but deep down, we all have the same basic needs for survival. Abraham Maslow defined these things as the hierarchy of needs, and when things steer us away from our chosen destination, this hierarchy has a tendency to kick in and take control of the rudder and get us back on course. However, when outside forces grab that wheel away from those needs for the protagonist in SEQUENCE BREAK, the new film directed by Graham Skipper having its international premiere at Fantastia Film Festival, we get taken down a rabbit hole that makes Alice’s trip to Wonderland look like a cake walk.
SEQUENCE BREAK follows Oz (Chase Williamson, JOHN DIES AT THE END), a young and quiet arcade machine repair technician. The shop he works in is ran by Jerry (Lyle Kanouse, WHATEVER WORKS), an entrepreneur that has his employees best interest in heart, sadly in a business that is seeing dwindling traffic. He gives Oz the bad news that the shop has maybe one more month before it is shuttered permanently. Jerry has some family business to attend to, so Oz will be manning the shop by himself for awhile, so when a deranged looking individual that may or may not be homeless shows up, leaving behind an arcade machine circuit board, Oz is compelled to see what this newfound treasure contains. What follows is a bizarre blend of character study with a body horror slant reminiscent of late 70’s David Cronenberg mixed with the early 90’s tech-obsessed works of the same Canadian auteur.
Maslow’s hierarchy starts at the bottom with our most basic needs, the Physiological. Those are food, water, shelter. Next is Safety, whether that being financial security, personal security, or health and wellness. From there we go into less tangible items as we get into sense of Social Belonging. This entails family, intimacy with a partner, as well as basic friendship. Next is Esteem, both in how we feel about ourselves and how others view and feel about us. Lastly, is Self-Actualization, where we take all that we’ve attained before and utilize it to tap into our full potential.
As Oz’s future is uncertain, specifically around his Safety, he turns to staying at the shop for shelter, and frequenting a nearby bar to soak his sorrows in, a misguided attempt at dealing with the Physiological. At the bar, he meets Tess (Fabianne Therese, TEENAGE COCKTAIL), a girl he ignored while Jerry gave her a tour of their shop. The two awkwardly converse, mostly about Oz’s eccentricities, such as not owning a phone himself in this time of cellular technology proliferation. They part ways with plans to meet up the following day. Oz ends up playing the game that resides on the mysterious circuit board, getting violently ill and seeing visions of his hand being consumed by blackness.
SEQUENCE BREAK reunites Chase Williamson and Fabianne Therese, who first worked together in JOHN DIES AT THE END. Based on a novel, JOHN DIES had a wonderful relationship between Dave and Amy, that sadly wasn’t touched upon nearly enough in the film. I’m glad to see that SEQUENCE BREAK is able to rectify this by allowing these two actors to truly exploit a genuine chemistry to make us care for their relationship. Yes, they fall into love easily, but they feel like souls reuniting after eons apart. Tess immediately sees that Oz is special, and she is bound and determined to break open that shell to let his inner light shine out. This is a perfect example of Esteem as we see how Tess sees him, as well as gets Oz to look at his own life. Coming from an actor’s background, I am happy to see that Skipper was able to draw from that experience to make an environment that allowed his cast to really flex their acting muscles. And having a familiarity with Williamson, from them working together on BEYOND THE GATES, I could almost envision Skipper in the Oz role.
Being a creative person, no matter the medium, you tend to be your biggest critic. In many cases, this causes some to not pursue their dreams for fear of failure, as we know our own weaknesses. Oz is a technical wizard with arcade machines, and aspires to make his own game. Tess and his boss Jerry both want him to grab the bull by the horns as they can tell his untapped potential is ready to be used. Having a partner and/or mentor like this is what all creative people need, as I’m sure Skipper is aware of. He’s often giving thanks to his wife for her consistent push to keep his acting and now directing going forward. I’m truly grateful for mine as well, as I wouldn’t have started writing were it not for her coaxing and encouragement. This aspect of the film may fall flat for some, but that theme means so much to me, that it truly elevates the film in my eyes. And again, it taps into the hierarchy of needs for both the Social Belonging piece as well as for the Self-Actualization.
While this film is primarily a character based drama, it does walk the thin line between horror and science-fiction that Cronenberg tread before. It doesn’t go for big scares or heady techno babble, but it is effective in showing us a mental shift as the mysterious game takes a more prominent role in both Oz and Tess’ life. And rather than having every morsel spoon-fed to the audience, Skipper allows the viewer to imagine where things go next.
SEQUENCE BREAK premieres at Fantasia Film Festival July 18th. To see more of its schedule, check it out here Believe me, this should be on any festival goer’s hierarchy of needs.