Threshold (2020)

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At the beginning of Threshold, disgruntled school music teacher Leo (Joey Millin) gets a call from his unseen mother. “We’ve found Virginia,” she is heard to say down the line – and so Leo is dispatched to pick Virginia up and bring her home. Leo has not seen or heard from Virginia (Madison West) for the last three years, ever since her frequent substance abuse drove a wedge between her and her family – but no matter how estranged she may have become, an invisible link abides between brother and sister, not unlike the phone connections in the ether that enable Leo to keep communicating from a distance with his mother, with his wife Kelsey and with his young daughter Ally (whose very name is suggestive of a connection). These ties can be delicate – for even as Leo seeks to reconnect with the long-lost Virginia, he is desperately struggling to maintain ties with Kelsey (who wants him to sign divorce papers). The sibling bond, however, rooted in common blood and a shared childhood, can be very resilient. 

There are other ties binding Virginia, ones that compete with the pull of family. Leo already knows all too well about her addictions, and when he finds her in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, writhing and convulsing on the bed like a woman possessed, he naturally assumes that she is either on something or in withdrawal. Yet she insists that she has been straight for some time, and instead ascribes her strange behaviour to a cult that helped her get off drugs, but then performed a ritual to bind her to them. “I’m cursed”, she tells her sceptical brother, explaining that there is an invisible connection between her and a male stranger (Daniel Abraham Stevens), ensuring that she feels what he feels, and vice versa. So if she acts as though she is intoxicated, that is because the stranger is – and she believes that the only way she can get this (other) monkey off her back is, with Leo’s help, to find the stranger.

With a budget considerably lower than ‘micro’, Powell Robinson and his writer/co-director Patrick R. Young went out on the road in two cars with stars Millin and West and producer Lauren Bates, using a pair of iPhones for their cameras, and working from a rough 20-page treatment that required the actors to improvise most of their lines. The result is an intimate hang-out flick, where the distanced Leo and Virginia grow ever closer again, even as they travel in the old, sticker-festooned car that Leo last drove 10 years ago, listen to CDs from their earlier years together, and retrace the roads where Leo once gigged with his band in happier days. They even revert to more adolescent activities, like random shoplifting, carving Halloween pumpkins, and messing with a ouija board – this reversion marking their return to the time when they were closest, and less tied down by other things. So this is a nostalgia trip, as brother and sister reacquaint themselves with all the original promise of their misspent youth. Yet we know that as their tie gets stronger, there is another tie (whether real or metaphorical) which Virginia needs fully to sever, and so the path that they follow leads towards something darkly occult which might just redefine – and perhaps solidify – their relationship forever.

Like all road movies, Threshold winds and meanders along, occasionally stopping here and there, on a journey whose movement and trajectory are every bit as important as the final destination. That said, in a film of only 72 minutes, Leo and Virginia are running on economy – and the incredible chemistry between Millin and West keeps us happy to be passengers on their strange excursion. Their status as brother and sister removes the complication of any romantic entanglement between them, while letting the film focus with pinpoint accuracy on a single, compelling theme. For here we are seeing just how far these two are willing to go for each other, even in pursuit of a crazily quixotic goal. The end of the road, when it comes, is both freaky and satisfying, with the final punchline, reserved for the film’s very last two seconds, in fact wrapping up neatly what the whole film has been exploring: the odd, ineffable intensity of the ties that bind siblings together. It is a sweet, funny buddy pic, with just the right amount of horror to push its characters beyond their comfort zones – and us with them.

Strap: Powell Robinson and Patrick R. Young’s charming no-budget ‘cult’ movie takes a fragile sibling bond for a funny, freaky test drive

Anton Bitel