The beautiful thing about film festivals such as Fantasia is that it allows for the discovery of a hidden gem that often goes overlooked. Toni Comas’ debut feature is that sleeper film of the festival. Set in the rural Midwest, the narrative follows Michael and Josh, a pair of paranormal investigators known as the Spirit Doctors. For them, their work as investigators is as much a means of escapism as it is a way to help others. Between life’s harsh reality and the constant fight of escapism, Michael (Gabe Fazio) finds himself disillusioned with his work on the team. Just as he’s throwing in the towel, one last case proves to be life changing.
On the surface, Indiana is quiet and simple. The score is sparse and the dialogue unassuming as it introduces the viewer to the town and its inhabitants. Beneath, though, is a simmering complexity that builds to an emotionally resonating climax. When we meet Michael, there’s a monotone to his introspections and an apathy that rarely leaves his face. What little is seen of his personal life is tragic, and his work with the Spirit Doctors is often met with open skepticism or hostility, save for the few welcoming believers. That the recent cases he’s taken are void of any actual paranormal events only exacerbates his increasing unhappiness. For his part, Josh remains devoted to their work, as it’s a highlight of both his and his son’s life amidst the boredom. Their story is intercut with that of a troubled old man, one that grows increasingly strange and sets up for a clear collision path.
Based on the premise, Indiana is not at all what you’d expect. Toni Comas and co-writer Charlie Williams offer thoughtful contemplations on what drives someone to investigate paranormal cases when most of the general population don’t believe. They take it even further by delivering compelling character arcs that explores faith and how it sometimes comes in the form of the most unexpected of places. Though their portrait of the American Midwest may be simple, their characters are anything but. Anna Franquesa Solano’s stunning cinematography only bolsters the emotional impact.
This isn’t a horror film by any means, but Comas’ character drama is haunting nonetheless. It’s atmospheric build is akin to Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter, but with a much more palatable run time. The drama, along with the characters, are understated. This is a slow-paced tale that matches its setting, yet that’s largely why the final act feels so powerful. Michael’s transformation from a dispirited man to one mightily shook by life’s unexpected way of answering his unspoken prayers delivers a surprising intensity thanks to the script and Fazio’s commanding performance.
In terms of horror, Indiana likely won’t appeal to the masses. Its very premise sets up a level of expectation that never quite comes into fruition. Yet, if you’re willing to let it, it’s that refusal to play into expectations that makes this film such a worthwhile feature. Life doesn’t always go the way we’d want, and sometimes those curveballs prove to be for the better. Likewise, Indiana isn’t at all what I thought it would be; instead I was met with a startling journey with an emotional conclusion.
Indiana screened at Fantasia International Film Festival on July 30, and will screen once more on August 2, 2017.