The A-Frame

The A-Frame (2024)

The A-Frame had its world première at Tribeca, 7 June 2024

The A-Frame opens with two sequences that seem unrelated, linked only by a shape. In the first impressionistic sequence, the camera tracks steadily towards a red-lit triangular device in a laboratory, as computer readouts of red text and multiple images of a man’s face (also red) are superimposed in frenetic flashes. The second, calmer sequence shows anxious Donna (Dana Namerode) lying supine on a table beneath a wall display of a triangle, as a woman administers reiki therapy to her. Donna is a pianist who is about to lose her osteosarcoma-riddled right hand to surgical amputation, and is desperate enough to try any remedy, even alternative ones involving crystals and mumbo jumbo. Hence the reiki – but as she waits in the hospital lobby for her next lot of bad news, she is approached by a man who, though a complete stranger, knows exactly who she is and what condition she has.

Though he looks like a young Kurt Russell, and speaks with charm, this man, Sam (Johnny Whitworth), is a deceiver and something of a creep. He is only pretending to need a wheelchair so that the hospital staff will take him for a patient, and he has hacked into Donna’s medical records for her private information – and given that this is how he deals with other people, one can only imagine that his ethics as a scientist are also lacking. Sam, though, has an offer for Donna that she finds hard to refuse: to undergo an experimental treatment that may rid her of her tumour.

Sam’s field of specialty is not oncology or indeed any part of medicine, but rather quantum physics, and the particle dislocator (and its corresponding relocator) that he has invented and built in his one-man lab – and that he has dubbed the ‘A-Frame’ owing to its triangular shape – is intended to be a gateway to alternative worlds. Yet after sending lab rats through a smaller prototype, he has discovered a by-product of their travel: when they return, the cancer that they previously had is gone. Sam is only interested in the mechanics of the multiverse, but this unexpected side-effect of his experiment opens up a possible route to gaining the consent of human guinea pigs: approach those with cancer – and so with nothing to lose – and promise them a second chance at life. It helps that the sudden yet measurable disappearance of their disease constitutes proof that the experiment has worked.

Donna is his first human subject, her hand tested on the small prototype – and soon Sam will turn to terminal patients Rishi (Nik Dodani) and Linda (Laketa Caston), persuading them to submit to a full-body trip through his bigger A-Frame portals. Yet much as the curative properties of the process are a secondary consideration to Sam, so too are the patients, whom he regards as just ‘data’ for his real project, quantum travel. Similarly the film itself is simultaneously following two paths that are only contingently related and only occasionally intersect. On the one hand, this is a sensitive drama about coming to terms with disease and death, as Donna and Linda negotiate what they want out of what little life cancer may have left to them; while on the other, this is science fiction – with elements of Cronenbergian body horror – as a sociopathically hubristic scientist’s experiments with teleportation lead to disastrous, grotesque consequences à la The Fly (1986).

Applying something like quantum physics to his own film, writer/director Calvin Lee Reeder has two plot lines occupying the same space, and merging into a monstrous genre hybrid. The A-Frame is certainly ungainly in its shape: it has a short run-time, but still somehow feels stretched; and its stakes are all at once life-or-death and surprisingly low. Yet perhaps this is less flaw than feature of a film that takes us from its beginning to its endpoint, and from birth to death, as though we were between two portals, while it deliberately exposes the messiness of the journey through mortality. 

strap: Calvin Lee Reeder’s sci-fi fuses cancer drama and Cronenbergian body horror into a misshapen genre hybrid

© Anton Bitel