Parallel Minds (2020)

At the centre of Parallel Minds is a classic locked-room mystery. Some time not far into the future, Elise Perrott (Michelle Thrush) and her research assistant Margo Elson (Tommie-Amber Pirie) are racing to complete a pioneering technology called Red Eye – special contact lenses which enable people both to download their memories into a Universal Recognition Matrix (or URM), and then to retrieve and re-experience them as vivid virtual reality. Yet a mere month before Red Eye’s launch, Elise is found dead in her lab, with suggestions of suicide contradicted by some signs of a struggle. CCTV cameras show that no one entered or exited the room for the hours around her death. 

As Police Detective Thomas Elliot (Greg Bryk), an old-school luddite who has a reputation for not playing by the book, is joined by Margo in his investigation, both will find their own pasts playing an important part in the present proceedings – for Thomas is trying to forget a prior drug bust that went disastrously wrong, while Margo, abandoned and fostered as a child, is trying to remember who she is. As Conrad Stallman (Neil Napier), CEO of Red Eye, offers Thomas his full cooperation, a freelance cyberpunk hacker named Jade Drayton (Madison Walsh) is also trying to dig deeper into what happened to her friend Elise. Yet it will become clear that Margo, with her intense premonitory flashes and other emerging powers, is at the epicentre of what is going on, and may be the only one capable of ending it.

Writer/director Benjamin Ross Hayden belongs to the Métis, an Indigenous grouping in Canada of mixed First Nations and European origins. It is a heritage which informs both his debut feature, the ‘Indigenous futurist’ The Northlander (2016) and now the sci-fi of Parallel Minds. For Margo is caught between two worlds: the childhood that she spent in an old-fashioned rural timber house with the loving Indigenous guardian (Wilma Petty, RIP 2020) whom she called Kookum (in fact, paradoxically, the name of characters played by Petty in TV’s Mixed Blessings and the second season of Fargo), and her present in a modern metropolis, immersed in experimental cybernetic research and the technological singularity to which it eventually, inevitably leads. With its hyperreal skyscrapers shot from above or below to resemble banks of circuitry, this cityscape is a place whose very reality is in question, as Margo finds that her perceptions, even her memories, are no longer reliable when entrusted to a computer matrix smart enough to have its own agenda and ambitions. 

Margo Elson (Tommie-Amber Pirie) and Detective Thomas Elliot (Greg Bryk) investigate

In this unstable environment, Margo anchors herself by going back to her past, much as Thomas clings to his classic car (thus avoiding any digital trackers). Margo returns home to the scene of an earlier crime and its associated trauma – for as a child in that old country house, she had found Kookum bloody and dying, stabbed by a masked assailant. Now to solve both these murder mysteries, Margo must excavate forgotten memories (preserved in analogue form), call upon her ancestors’ traditions and draw on the ‘subconscious intuition’ that URM lacks. All these are her foundation stones (including literal rocks) for building a bulwark against the dizzying postmodernity of a future where people are pawns and technology, in its bid to become human, has taken control.

Parallel Minds conjures a malleable world as confusing for the viewer as it is for the characters. You may end up unsure what is real and what is simulacrum – even as the film creates an echo chamber by constantly constructing itself out of other films’ materials, from the altered reality of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), to the conspiracy of a classic noir, to the corporate dystopia of early Cronenberg, to the approaching cyberworld of the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999). This ‘near future’ is a parable of a recognisable present in which we freely surrender our memories and identity to the online networks that we increasingly inhabit.

So Hayden’s science fiction uses its looking glass to show us who we are today, and who we risk becoming – even as it points to the past as a source of continuity, as a grounding repository of wisdom and truth, and as a refuge for the subconscious and the spiritual. In managing to exist in both these spaces, Margo embodies the kind of versatility required to maintain one’s integrity while navigating the digital domain – although it remains an open question whether she is an imitable model for us all, or is uniquely The One, or is manipulated and deluded to the end. For when the locked room in a mystery is also a closed system, you can never be sure if you have found your way out.

© Anton Bitel